A tale of two marketplaces

Well, folks. I had actually planned on writing about how recruiting truly diverse teams of writers requires actively removing barriers to entry. But instead, thanks to Gabe Newell and the legions of MRA asshats on Steam, I’m writing this instead. Blame the fedoras.

Anyway. Before I get into a detailed look at why Gabe Newell’s response to a flap over on Steam was both unethical and colossally bone-headed, let’s cover some necessary background. (Feminism is much like sci-fi in that infodumps are an evil necessity.)

Chapter 1: Steam Greenlight and indie game Hatred

Hatred isn’t a new game – it’s been in development for a while. But it wasn’t a game that many people had heard of before it got put up on Steam Greenlight two days ago:

Hatred, from unknown Polish developer Destructive Creations, was first announced back in October. Its trailer seemed to revel in the massacre of civilians with a kind of gruesome glee. The video drew comparisons to ultra-violent game franchises like Postal and Manhunt for its apparently amoral focus on gunning down innocent bystanders in violent detail. “This is the time for vengeance, and no life is worth saving, and I will put in the grave as many as I can,” the protagonist says in the trailer. “It’s time for me to kill, and it’s time for me to die. My genocide crusade begins here.” –Kyle Orland, Ars Technica

Charming.

Granted, it is true Hatred isn’t exactly the first game of its kind. Postal and Manhunt blazed that dubious trail. Still, given that the rate of mass shootings in the United States has tripled from 2011’s already pretty-fucking-high levels, it’s not too surprising that Steam stepped in and quickly removed the game from Greenlight.

…for about 24 hours, that is.

Late last night, Hatred re-appeared on the fan-voting section of Steam Greenlight, with all of its original comments and votes intact. What’s more, it seems like Destructive Creations received an email from Gabe Newell, apologizing for the decision to remove their game:

Hi, Jaroslaw.

Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.

Good luck with your game.

-Gabe.

Oh good. I’m so glad that Gabe Newell is committed to fighting for the artistic freedom of game developers to make games that paint entitled men who go on violent rampages as the hero. I mean, it’s not like mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released (1997 and 2003 respectively). And, you know, who needs to be concerned about promoting a cultural narrative that glorifies mass violence when there have been 278 American mass shootings up to this point in 2014? I’m sure that can’t possibly have any negative repercussions.

Even more disturbing are the comments that have been added since Hatred was reinstated that call for developers to add SJW NPCs that they can murder:

SJW

WHAT. THE ACTUAL. FUCK.

The first comment is actually a (particularly gross) description of Zoe Quinn – the unfortunate original target of #GamerGate. I honestly don’t have the bandwidth to marinate in that kind of bile, but it seems that there have been specific requests for other favorite targets of #GamerGate, including Anita Sarkeesian.

But. You know. FREEEEEEDOM. Or something.

Chapter 2: Drive Thru Cards/Drive Thru RPG and the #GamerGate card game

So let’s compare and contrast the above with DTRPG’ handling of an analogous situation that arose when MRA tabletop designer James Desborough used their self-publishing tools published a #GamerGate card game that purported to be “satire”:

One player takes the side of Gamergate, and the other is the SJW’s in this satirical look at the recent controversy.  Play either the “Social Justice Warriors trying to get away with egregious breaches of ethics before Gamergate can create enough of a fuss and social pressure to expose them, all the while flaming each other on Twitter, screaming for attention and being trolled hard.[1]

…riiiight.

DTRPG reacted swiftly and removed the game from its site. A few days later, the following update was sent to DTRPG publishers and was also posted to DTRPG’s social media feed. Their update addressed several points, including the merits of supposedly satirical works based on active hate movements (emphasis mine):

Normally, satirical works would be welcome on our marketplaces. However, we feel that there are situations where satire is inappropriate. For example, we do not think that a game released today that satirizes police killings of minorities in the USA would be appropriate. Regardless of how one feels about an issue like that, we feel that it is too current, too emotionally charged on both sides, and too related to real-world violence or death to make it an appropriate matter for satire.

Similarly, no matter how one feels about Gamergate, it is likewise too current, too emotionally [sic] frought, and too related to violence to be an appropriate subject for satire. Additionally, we considered that the violent element of the Gamergate issue has a basis in misogyny. For these reasons, we felt that this card game title was not welcome for sale on our site.

(The entirety of their post can be found here and is well worth reading.)

Chapter 3: Privately owned marketplaces and censorship

It’s interesting that both Valve and DTRPG raised the spectre of censorship in their responses to their respective situations. But it’s also unfortunate in that it helps promote popular misconceptions about what actually constitutes censorship.

Neither Valve nor DTRPG are in any way connected with any kind of government or governmental body. They have no power to stifle the free speech of a creator, because they don’t have any ability to levy sanctions against the creator of an offensive game. Nor do they have the power to prevent a creator from publishing a game via alternative methods, of which – it should be noted – there are many. (KickStarter, Patreon, IndieGoGo, etc etc.) Indeed, it has never been easier to be a self-published game creator.

Valve and DTRPG are simply companies that happen to own a marketplace where third parties are allowed to promote and sell their own games, in exchange for a share of revenue earned. They get to set the rules for that marketplace, because it’s their fucking marketplace.  Kicking someone out of their marketplace or pulling a particular product from their digital shelves isn’t censorship. It’s a private company discontinuing a relationship with a vendor.

To use a real-world analogy…

GenCon has a Dealer’s Room in which vendors may purchase space to set up a booth and sell merchandise. The Dealer’s Room is, essentially, an absurdly large private marketplace. (In 2014 there were more than 3000 booths!) Because GenCon owns the marketplace, they set rules as to what may and may not be sold in the Dealer’s Room. Some of these rules relate to the types of items that may not be sold (biohazards, live animals, rocket launchers, etc). Some of these rules relate to the content of items being sold. (No visible female nipples, no frontal nudity.)

For the most part, these rules don’t generate any controversy. Partly because vendors know that they can’t expect total freedom when using someone else’s marketplace to sell their goods. But also because those rules protect the interests of the vendors who choose to participate in that private marketplace.

Continuing with our analogy, let’s say that GenCon had no restrictions on use of their space and were happy to let you do anything, anything with your space once you had paid for it. And let’s say that you’re a vendor who sells products that meet the core demand of GenCon’s typical audience, and you have a booth. You’re looking forward to doing some solid business, but when you show up it turns out that the booth next to you is selling fresh-from-the-cow manure. And their booth is full of it. Hundreds of pounds of manure.

When you talk to them, they say that there is a demand for their product. And it’s true. The demand is small, and their traffic is pretty meager, but people do seek out their booth to buy their manure. But this puts you in a difficult position. You’re not the one selling manure, but you’re sure as hell going to be associated with it, and your products are going to wind up smelling more and more like shit the longer their manure sits right next to your booth.

Now some of your customers will be completely unfazed by the presence of the manure, either because they are dedicated customers with whom you have a long-established relationship, or because they have no strong feelings about manure. Some of your customers will be unhappy about the manure, but will still patronize your booth if they happen to be nearby. But some of your customers will decide that they don’t want to go near a tremendous mountain of shit in order to buy your products, and it goes without saying that you’re going to have a harder time attracting new business when many customers won’t even see your booth, they’ll just see the massive shit pile and go somewhere else.

However, this isn’t the case for Valve and DTRPG. Both companies have, to varying degrees, restrictions on what products they will allow to be sold in their marketplaces. Both companies have recently found themselves in the situation of having a publisher that wanted to use their marketplace to sell games that amounted to festering piles of shit. The difference is how they reacted.

DTRPG quickly stepped in, removed the manure from their marketplace, Febreezed the shit out of everything, and apologized to their vendors and customers. Whereas Valve initially removed the manure from their marketplace, then let the manure vendor back in and personally apologized to the shit-sellers for having the temerity to imply that perhaps some people would be unhappy about having a festering shitpile attracting flies in their marketplace.

Which just goes to show why DTRPG is a company I’m happy to do business with, while Valve/Steam is a company that I go out of my way to avoid patronizing, if at all humanly possible.

I’m not anti-sex, video games just suck at not failing at it

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.

However, it’s also true that about 99% of the things that I write here pertaining to sex and female sexuality as they are portrayed in video games are harshly critical. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since writing my last post, because Bayonetta is a character that you really can’t write about without examining how her sexuality is portrayed and how that portrayal is actively harmful.

Sex in videogames: seriously, why is it so bad?

The reality is that as a medium, video games are 10-15 years behind other art forms in their portrayal of female sexuality[1]. That’s not to say that the rest of art and pop culture get it right – there are still an awful lot of terrible things to be found in movies, comics, and television. But there are also a wealth of examples of non-video-game pop culture in which female sexuality isn’t demonized, punished, or objectified[2].

As for video games…? Even after wracking my brains, I was only able to come up with a handful of games with totally positive portrayals of female sexuality, and even then half of those had caveats:

good_depictions

Although romance has been a staple of the Final Fantasy series, it’s been pretty much void of sex, with the exception of that not-a-sex-scene-that’s-still-totally-a-sex-scene in FFX. Which is a shame, because as much as Squeenix fails at costume design, their writers are really top notch at writing believable female characters who are a mix of strong and vulnerable and everything in between. And despite the fact that they didn’t technically have sex, I thought X’s not-a-sex-scene was a really touching portrayal of Yuna and Tidus allowing themselves to be mutually vulnerable to each other. (And you will never convince me that they weren’t totally having sex offscreen and that the music montage was just some epic afterglow.)

BioWare is a better example in that its sex scenes are actually sex scenes, although this hasn’t always been the case. While Dragon Age: Origins takes the cake for the BioWare romance I found most compelling (I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, but my female warden fell for Alistair so frigging hard), the fact that the designers chickened out and rendered all of the sex scenes with characters in their underwear really bugged me. It actually felt more objectifying than the Mass Effect series’ sex scenes, which were underwear free, just because at least Mass Effect wasn’t specifically calling attention to people’s junk.

Still, ridiculous underwear aside, BioWare has done really well in their portrayals of female sexuality. There are women who are lesbians, bisexual, hetero, and cheerfully ambiguous. They have women who just want casual sex, women who are after romance, and women who aren’t really sure what they want. And none of these women are presented as wrong, or as being punished for their sexuality. Even better, there’s no difference between how sex scenes are handled between FemShep and BroShep. No matter who you play, there’s real tenderness there.

And sure, there are missteps. Like Morrigan’s blatant and stereotypical sexuality, or Jack with her ridiculous nipple straps and her MaleShep romance option of fixing her with sex, which I just find really terrible. (Seriously, feminists get told all the damn time that what we need to “fix” us is a good dicking, so I find that trope particularly offensive.)

But beyond Final Fantasy and recent BioWare titles, I was stuck. An informal straw poll on Google+ yielded a few more like Saint’s Row IV (which I haven’t played) – a notable example that was put forth by several people. (I’ll admit to being surprised.) Gone Home also came up, as did The Sims[3]. ..aaaand that was about all any of us could come up with. Sadly, it seems AAA game studios (that aren’t BioWare) simply don’t have a clue how to write sexual content that doesn’t exist to solely to objectify female characters.

Not that that should come as a surprise. 88 percent of game industry devs are male, and it’s been well documented that harassment for women in the industry is pretty much a given. (Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Jennifer Hepler, Jade Raymond… the list is very long and very depressing.) Much as we think of games as an interactive medium, interactions have to be programmed. Every interaction has to be scripted and its potential outcomes defined, and the people doing that programming are largely white and male – and all of that is happening in an environment steeped in misogyny and brogramming culture.

Is it any wonder, then, that AAA games nearly always fail to deliver genuine portrayals of female sexuality? How can they, when the few women in the industry can’t effectively advocate for themselves, let alone for a fictional female character? So when AAA game studios try to include honest portrayals of female sexuality, the result is nearly always something like this:

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sex in tabletop game design: an example to be emulated [4]

The conversation about how to handle sex at the table is hardly a new one in tabletop land. Of course, being a different medium, that conversation has resulted in different tools. Some of those tools can best be described as “safety nets” – tools to help people feel safe in playing through content that makes them vulnerable. I’m only going to mention those tangentially as a separate conversation worth being aware of; though if you’re not familiar with lines and veils  and the X-Card, you should definitely read up on them.

What I find more interesting, however – at least for the purposes of this conversation – is the different mechanical approaches that varying designers have taken to solving this problem of how to address sex in a mechanical way in ways that feel meaningful, without resorting to cheap stereotypes. While this is far from an exhaustive catalog of games worth considering, here are some games that explicitly include sex mechanics I have played and enjoyed:

1) Kagematsu – a game in which the sole male character (a ronin) is played by a woman, and all of the other characters are trying to seduce him with the purpose of convincing him to stay and protect their village. In playing this, I loved how it greatly inverted players’ default point of view.

2) Apocalypse World focuses on the consequences that result from sex, with custom sex moves that only take effect after characters have sex, and with varying results, depending on just who it is that’s doing it. (And let me tell you, things get real interesting when it’s two PCs having sex.)

3) Much to my regret, I have yet to play Monsterhearts as anything other than a convention game. Still, Monsterhearts is a fantastic game for exploring themes of emerging sexuality – queer or otherwise – and the confusion that this can cause. As an Apocalypse World derivative, Monsterhearts has sex moves. However, it’s worth noting that a Monsterhearts-specific move lets all PCs make rolls to turn someone on – the person targeted is either turned on or not as determined by the dice.

Of course, the main thing that all of these systems have in common is that these are systems that aren’t exclusively engineered to model violence. Violence is definitely a large part of Apocalypse World, because hey – apocalypse. But Apocalypse World is also designed to model relationships, sex, fucking, psychic horror, and general social dysfunction. Monsterhearts does include harm (damage), but that’s far less central to the system than the mechanics modeling relationships, obligation, arousal, and sex. And Kagematsu doesn’t even have any violence mechanics at all! Kagematsu’s rules focus on modeling affection versus desperation, and about the most violent thing that players can choose to do mechanically is slap Kagematsu – which doesn’t leave any lasting effect, aside from the effect on what he thinks of you.

These sorts of mechanics lead to sex that feels messy and vulnerable and real. Sex that can feel fun or fraught; romantic or deeply unhealthy or even both; complicated and wonderful and meaningful. And the mechanics drive that story!

The best example I have witnessed of this is actually something that just happened in an Apocalypse World campaign that I’m part of. My character and another PC had been “circling the drain” (as I had previously described our relationship), with sex as an almost-inevitable conclusion that we somehow hadn’t managed until the end of our most recent session. And when it did finally happen, I was so very excited because of this little rule on my character sheet:

quarantine

For those of you familiar with AW, it was my Quarantine and the Hocus. Yes it was just as messed up as it sounds.

And let me tell you, knowing that this was a move that was going to come into play, the rest of the players were super invested in the scene! There wasn’t any phone-checking or side conversations, because the Quarantine sex move is so goddamn sweet in a post-apocalyptic world composed almost entirely of awfulness! Which is how this happened:

loved-oh-snap

And then the rest of the scene happened, and it was great and we moved on with our lives. It wasn’t until later that it really struck me that people had reacted as if we were playing D&D and I’d just rolled a one-shot on a dragon, which just goes to show why I love Apocalypse World so very much. It is absolutely possible to get player investment and excitement in things other than death and violence!

The problem is that the complete lack of these sorts of mechanics is where the majority of video games run into problems. The majority of AAA video games are violence simulators, with a couple other sub-systems thrown in. And that’s not to decry their worth as games – I’ll admit that I find using Adrenaline’s slow-mo effect in Mass Effect to line up a sniper rifle shot through an eye-slit in a riot shield immensely satisfying! But when 90% or more of a game’s mechanics revolve around various flavors of how to kill things, it shouldn’t be surprising that portrayals of female sexuality wind up as hollow retreads of awful sexist stereotypes.

Even BioWare games, which I feel generally handle female sexuality pretty well, rely on an incredibly shallow sub-system slapped on top of their violence simulator. If you do things a, b, and c and say things x, y, and z – you can accumulate enough points sleep with a woman, so long as the option has been programmed to allow you to do so. Their very sophisticated script-writing obscures the fact that the only design that has gone into modeling character relationships is a simple system of one-time bonuses and penalties, hidden behind pretty graphics and clever dialogue.

And as a game designer, I just feel like we can do so much better! Yes video games are a different medium with different constraints than tabletop. But tabletop designers have been learning from video game design for years. Maybe it’s time for video game devs to start looking at tabletop systems for solutions to the problem of how to use mechanical systems to drive satisfying stories about sex and relationships.

Sadly, until that happens I think the best we can expect is a thin veneer of romance on top of games about killing things and taking their stuff.

[1] Worth noting, that I’m almost exclusively writing about cisgender female sexuality here, simply because of the dearth of examples available to me.

[2] Granted, those examples are almost always indie-affiliated. But that’s a different conundrum.

[3] Which I wouldn’t have thought of, since the Sims don’t have any character beyond what the player constructs for them. But at the same time, any punishment of female Sims for having sex comes entirely from the player and not from the game. And given that having recreational sex is an entirely different option from having procreative sex, the mechanics are pretty darn feminist.

[4] I’m going to speak specifically about indie tabletop design, mostly because that’s the type of game that I play and the type of games that my friends design. That’s not to say that there aren’t games outside of Indie Tabletop Land that might not also provide positive examples.

Wednesday Freebies: the getting back to normal (for now) edition

I’m currently working on a post about Bayonetta 2 that’s hit a snag. (I wanted to include a redraw, but holy shit, folks. This is the hardest redraw I’ve ever tried. Harder even than re-drawing HTK, which was a nightmare.) So I thought I’d share a few things worth reading, since it seems like the internet awful is finally (finally!) creeping back into its usual corners and it might be safe to start reading things about gaming again.

For now, that is. Because let’s not kid ourselves. The internet awful has not gone away. The volume dial has just been turned back down. But the next time another one of these faux scandals occurs – and it will occur, have no doubt – #GamerGate has really raised the bar for just how bad things can get for whichever woman finds herself being targeted by a hatemob next.

So anyway, here are some things worth checking out. And I plan on getting up that Bayonetta post tomorrow.


 

#GGish things that I promise are funny and not awful

This comic about how to complain about video game review scores is perfect, and I can’t think of anything I would add to it.

There are very few things I love more than sarcastic charts, and this sarcastic pie chart by a former BioWare game dev about “the true impact of SJWs on Game Development” is a masterpiece.

Not #GGish things that are rad

Speaking of BioWare, a group of game devs at the BioWare Montreal studio recently helped a woman propose to her girlfriend by making a custom Mass Effect level, and really just go read the story right now it will definitely make you smile. I know I go after BioWare a lot on this blog, but it’s fantastic to see something like this.

And lastly, over Google+, the ever-perfect Avery McDaldno is killing it as usual in this post about creating queer-friendly games and spaces. It’s definitely a must-read for game designers concerned about making inclusive, queer-friendly games.

Thursday Freebie: anti-harassment policy resources

[This is not a paid post for a lot of reasons. The tl;dr is that as far as my work that I will cite here, I’ve been paid for some of it, and the rest was the result of time that I donated to local organizations. I didn’t feel right “double dipping”, as it were. Not to mention that with #GamerGate still incomprehensibly a thing, I want to avoid anything that even resembles being a “professional victim”. That said, if you want to support me in doing this kind of work, becoming a patron would certainly help.]

The ongoing climate of fear, intimidation, and harassment sparked by GG has certainly put gaming’s problem with women in stark relief. If there can be said to be any good that has come of GooberGate, it is that gamers who have previously tried to “stay neutral” in such debates are realizing that there is no such thing as “neutrality” when it comes to hate movements[1].

So I felt like this would be a good time to talk about anti-harassment policies, because working to implement harassment policies is a concrete step that can be taken to make women feel safer at conferences and other large events.

First: What is an anti-harassment policy and why should our event have one?

An anti-harassment policy is a policy that clearly spells out types of behavior that will not be permitted, steps that event attendees can take to report harassment, and how the policy will be enforced. Anti-harassment policies are a key part of creating a safe environment, because they help to set an expectation that harassment is an issue that will be taken seriously by event organizers.

If you’re just getting started learning about anti-harassment policies, The Ada Initiative and the Geek Feminism Wiki are excellent resources, albeit more tech conference-focused. For a (mostly tabletop) gaming-focused take on the issue, the incomparable John Stavropolous has written this excellent guide called How to Run Safer, Accessible, and Inclusive Game Conventions.

Second: What are some examples of robust anti-harassment policies “in the wild”?

While DragonCon has had problems with regards to uneven enforcement of convention policies and bad optics over their decision to ban Backup ribbons, they still have one of the best-written anti-harassment policies that I’ve seen. The language itself is worth using as a template, although hopefully event organizers would use DragonCon’s actual implementation of the policy as a cautionary tale and not as an example to be emulated.

Pelgrane Press has an official anti-harassment policy for 13th Age events that I was paid to work on, along with Ash Law. I quite like this as an example of a policy that not only spells out inappropriate behavior but also spells out the things that event attendees should be able to expect as part of a positive and open gaming environment.

Anti-harassment policies don’t have to be limited to geek events, however. They can, and should!, be written for pretty much any kind of volunteer-run organization. After working on the 13th Age policy, I helped to adapt some of that language in the implementation of an anti-harassment policy for a local amateur theater company that I am a part of.

Third: How do I notify attendees of an anti-harassment policy?

Well, personally I’m a huge fan the approach that New York ComicCon took:

Photo taken from BoingBoing – found here

GIANT-ASS VERY READABLE SIGNS.

Your organization might not have the budget for such large signage, but prominently placed, clearly worded signage is definitely the way to go. At the very minimum, the anti-harassment policy should be posted in a high-visibility area near your event’s registration area and outside each entrance to the dealer’s hall, if you are running an event that has one. A lot of harassment actually takes place in convention dealer halls and is largely directed at cosplayers.

Which is why, if you are running an event that participants are likely to attend in costume, you should also consider posting “cosplay is not consent” posters in high traffic areas of your event space.

Lastly, it can be very difficult for convention staff to know how to handle harassment complaints in the moment, especially as many gaming and other geekdom conventions are at least partially staffed by volunteers. However, it is critical that convention staff know how to conduct themselves when approached with a harassment complaint, so as to avoid making an already terrible situation even worse.

So here is an example of a concise document that can be used to train staff in how to talk to someone bringing forward a harassment complaint, as well as guidelines for how to responsibly take action. This was something that I wrote for that same local theater company, but could easily be adapted to fit the needs of a conference or convention.

Fourth: what can I do to push event organizers to implement harassment policies?

If there’s an event you’d like to attend that doesn’t have an anti-harassment policy, contact the event organizers directly and express your concern about the lack of a policy. Most of the time, event organizers who are running events without anti-harassment policies aren’t doing so out of malice. The problem of convention harassment is something that has pretty much always existed, but been kept silent.

For instance – after I approached GenCon organizers about my concern regarding their lack of a policy and related my experience of being harassed at GenCon, GenCon subsequently implemented an anti-harassment policy, which was even mentioned in the opening ceremonies at the beginning of the convention. (They could still do better with signage, but they’re working on it, which is hugely encouraging.)

It can be a bit scary broaching such a topic, but remember that it is in the best interests of event organizers to ensure that their attendees feel safe and welcome.

Lastly, should you be blessed enough to possess sufficient status within your community to be invited as a panelist or guest of honor at a convention, please strongly consider following John Scalzi’s example in refusing to attend events without an anti-harassment policy. By setting such an example, you can make things better for everyone.


[1] Either you side with the people being abused, or you side with their abusers. The idea of this as a conflict with opposing “sides” is victim-blaming of the worst sort, because it makes speaking out against abuse somehow morally equivalent with ACTUALLY ABUSING PEOPLE.

On #GamerGate and the impossibility of “just making games”

Hey, folks. So you’ll notice that there haven’t been any freebie linkspams for… a while. And that’s pretty much a direct result of #GamerGate, because everything that I would link to could be summarized as TL;DR HUMANS ARE AWFUL. Not to mention that it is not possible to put enough trigger warnings on even the not-terrible coverage of GG issues.

I’ve also been having a hard time finding the bandwidth to write here, despite the abundance of topics that I want to write about. I have friends that I want to interview about their positive work in games, there’s more analysis I want to do of the changing trends in Magic: The Gathering art direction, I’d like to noodle about some thoughts inspired by recent game projects on the intersection between social justice and game design. I mean, I have a fucking Patreon – you’d think it would be easier to find space to write here when I am literally getting paid to blog about the things that I am passionate about.

But friends, it’s been so hard.

We get told “just make games” or “just make art” like it’s supposed to be some kind of panacea. Like “just making games” will enable me to rise above the bullshit and transcend the awful with sheer awesome. And honestly, I would love, LOVE for that to be the solution. Nothing would please me more than being able to post a clever “haters gonna hate” meme and move on with my life.

But how can I “just make games” for a hobby that wants me to stop existing?

How can I “just make games” when “just making games” requires me to engage with a community that I don’t want my daughter to be a part of, and that I will do my best to hide her from when she is old enough to venture into online spaces. (Which, thankfully, is many years away yet.)

How can I “just make games” when hate and terror campaigns created to scare women out of gaming are triggering my anxiety and making it hard for me to just function day-to-day, let alone “just make games”.

For those of you who have never had to deal with anxiety, it’s fucking exhausting. And GG makes it literally impossible to know where the line is between “shut up brain, you’re being stupid again” and reasonable fucking caution.

Is enabling 2-factor authentication on my accounts needless paranoia, or reasonable caution? Who the fuck knows? When a co-worker discovered my blog, was I being an over-reacting paranoid weirdo when I asked him not to link it to a bunch of trolls? Or was I justified? Fuck if I know! When my name pops up on a forum that is well-known as a haven for misogynist tabletop gamers and I am called an “extremist”, am I making mountains out of molehills when that site’s presence in my blog’s referral links for the last month causes a vague, generalized dread whenever I check my site stats? Or is this something that I need to worry about?

I DON’T FUCKING KNOW ANYMORE.

People who say “it’s just on the internet” are not only completely out of touch with the reality of how modern life works, but they’re ignoring the real mental health consequences of these cyber harassment mobs. You don’t have to be directly targeted by them, either. Just the knowledge that they exist is a visceral threat. And when these mobs attack women that you respect, admire, and look up to – there’s a certain sense of inevitability. If I continue to walk down this path, it’s hard not to believe that this is what the future holds for me.

That is terrifying.

And it keeps me from doing the fucking work that needs to get done in order to “just make games”.

I have a KickStarter I need to be promoting more. That I’m proud of! Because it’s fucking awesome! And I have done some promotion work, but I’ve been chasing after “safe” audiences, because it’s not as worry-inducing as chasing potentially-hostile promotion sources for an explicitly social-justice-oriented game product, and hoping that the stats on funding and KickStarter are accurate and that momentum will get me over my funding goal.

I have things I want to blog about for an audience that has proven its interest and its willingness to support me with actual electronic moneyz, and lately I find myself writing out of a sense of obligation rather than real passion or excitement.

The fear, the anxiety, the need to detox and spend time doing and thinking about things that aren’t games – it all gets in the way of “just making games”.

And to those who say that I’m overreacting, that it’s all in my head, that it’s not a big deal, that “no one’s died yet” – that’s bullshit. At least one trans game dev, Kate von Roeder has committed suicide[1], and a mass shooting threat has forced Anita Sarkeesian to cancel a talk when the local law enforcement was unwilling to prevent attendees from bringing concealed weapons.

Let’s not forget that it was only several months ago that the Isla Vista shooter went on a killing spree after months of escalating online rhetoric about how much he despised and wanted to kill women. And it was nearly twenty-five years ago that the Montreal massacre resulted in the deaths of fourteen female engineering students at the hands of a man who blamed feminists for ruining his life.

So yeah, people have died. And more people might die. And that’s what every woman who works in games and is vocal about feminist issues deals with. The knowledge that speaking out comes with consequences, and it is impossible to know how steep those consequences will be.

So where does that leave me? For now, I’m still here. I’m still making games. I’m still blogging. My anxiety means that I’m not able to sustain the level of output that I know I’m capable of when I’m feeling well and am not having active symptoms, but I’m in the process of getting help and am trying not to beat myself up too much. I’m forcing myself to engage in self-care and am doing what I can.

Maybe some day we’ll be at a point where I can “just make games”. But that’s not a future I see arriving any time soon.

[1] I’ve heard reports of a second trans dev committing suicide, but the Google search results are too toxic for me to face today. So I guess it’s a good thing I’m just a blogger and not a real journalist or something.

Crowdfunding platforms: why I use KickStarter and why you should too

[In the interest of transparency, I’ll disclose that I’m currently running a campaign on KickStarter; I also sort-of-know two people who work for KickStarter, so, you know, #corruption or #ethics or whatever[1].]

[ETA: The officer who murdered Michael Brown was Daren Wilson, not Darren Watts. I am a tremendous moron, and that mistake has been corrected. I deeply apologize for the confusion.]

One of the biggest and, to my mind, best changes to alter the indie tabletop publishing landscape in the last few years is the advent of crowdfunding. Prior to things like KickStarter, publishing even small book projects required a substantial investment, one that might not pay off for the first few months of a new project. That privileged people with the ability to tie up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in dead-tree books for months at a time until they saw a profit.

True story, the first edition of Thou Art But A Warrior that I published cost me about $400 for the initial print run, and I did everything myself. EVERYTHING. Writing, art, layout (that was a mistake – I’m terrible at layout), the only things I had to pay for were printing and shipping. I had a pretty successful debut at GenCon in 2008, for indie values of success that is, but even so it took two and a half months to earn back my investment and start making “profits”, as it were.

Luckily, I could afford to do that. When I published the first edition of TABAW, I was a DINK[2] living in an apartment with no significant ongoing expenses. I had the financial ability to write off that $400 knowing that it would come out in the wash. Eventually. Probably.

Now obviously, that sort of publishing landscape is going to privilege a certain class of creator, and serve as a bar to entry to other classes of creators.

So KickStarter was revolutionary, in that it allowed designers to make games without the painful initial investment. It also took away the financial worries behind publishing a new project. Was this going to be a flop? What if no one bought it? What would you do with 200 copies of a game no one wanted? With KickStarter-style crowdfunding, you can know if your project isn’t commercially viable before sinking massive funds into it, which again is a huge, huge deal for people who want to make games but can’t afford to waste money on a failure[3].

(Sidebar: Patreon has been even more revolutionary in lowering the barrier to publishing paid content, because the ability to get funding on an ongoing basis for creating a stream of content is really just the best and so much less stressful than project-based platforms like KickStarter. And I think it’s not a coincidence that I’m seeing more women and PoC and queer designers putting out work since Patreon became a thing, but that is maybe a post for another time.)

The success of KickStarter has spawned a legion of crowdfunding platforms, however some of KickStarter’s biggest competitors have not adhered to KickStarter’s high ethical standards. So since ethics in gaming seems to be “a thing” right now, I thought I’d provide a publisher’s-eye view of the ethical concerns behind my decision to switch to KickStarter for my most recent crowdfunding campaign.

The ethical quandaries inherent in running a crowdfunding platform

The thing about KickStarter and other crowdfunding platforms is that they make money on each campaign that funds successfully. So as a business, it’s in their best interest to see lots of campaigns funding successfully so as to make lots of money. However, the fact that KickStarter and similar funding platforms are what is enabling the projects being funded to exist adds an interesting ethical wrinkle. KickStarter is not itself a publisher or creator, but it profits from the works that are created through their campaigns.

Ergo, there’s a balance that has to be struck when considering projects – where does a crowdfunding platform draw the line of content they won’t publish, or do they even draw one at all? Being willing to deny or shut down campaigns for projects that are harmful in some fashion also means turning down potential income.

So how do different crowdfunding companies balance these two concerns?  I’m not going to look at every crowdfunding company, because that would be insane. But I thought it would be worth comparing KickStarter and IndieGoGo – the two most popular sites for crowdfunding games right now.

KickStarter

Until very recently[4], KickStarter’s campaigns were 100% curated – meaning that they had to approve every campaign before it was allowed to go live. So a lot of the worst (ie offensive/harmful) campaigns were simply not allowed to fund on KickStarter.

Even when something truly awful managed to get through the approval process, KickStarter has been willing to shutdown harmful campaigns in clear violation of their ToS, such as in the case of Tentacle Bento – a truly awful game about aliens abducting school girls and sexually assaulting them. Thankfully, KickStarter stepped in and shut that one down. (Though it didn’t stop the game from being produced, depressingly.)

But even more tellingly, KickStarter is also able to admit when they get something wrong. Take this example of a campaign for a PUA manual that instructed men in how to get around clear refusals in order to coerce women to sleep with them. This repugnant manual was at the very least advocating sexual harassment, and at the worst advocating sexual assault. KickStarter staff were alerted to the campaign and were faced with making a decision a mere two hours before the funding deadline and they decided to not shut down the campaign.

However, in the wake of that campaign they repented and wrote this blog post called “We Were Wrong” in which they explained the motives behind their decision and how they got it wrong. They then pledged to donate $25,000 – which was more than the offensive campaign raised in the first place – to RAINN.

Which, you know, kudos. They took it on the chin, admitted they got it wrong, and took action as a result. Which is more than can be said for…

IndieGoGo

IndieGoGo’s main selling features as a competitor of KickStarter were that they didn’t curate campaigns and that creators have the option to run “flexible funding campaigns”, which means you can choose to keep all of the money you raise even your campaign fails (though the fees for this type of campaign are higher than the all-or-nothing campaigns). And in theory, the lack of curation isn’t a terrible thing, so long as they’re willing to enforce their own ToS, which prohibits: “Bullying, harassing, obscene or pornographic items, sexually oriented or explicit materials or services”.

The problem is that they’re willing to let pretty much anything fly, ToS be damned, because sweet sweet filthy lucre. Take, for example, the case of Tentacle Grape Soda – a truly repugnant campaign for rape-joke-themed grape soda. (Yes really)

Here is a copy of what I sent to IndieGoGo staff when I reported the campaign:

This item promotes rape and sexual harassment through the trivialization of rape. They have a disclaimer at the bottom saying that they don’t support rape, but this is belied by the following:

* their artwork depicts a woman about to be raped by a tentacle in a rather playful light
* the campaign creators FREELY ACKNOWLEDGE that the name of their product is a play on “tentacle rape”
* the campaign includes unused label designs that show women in mild to extreme distress about their impending tentacle rape
* this alternate art is being sold as a premium reward level, allowing the creators to profit off of a graphic depiction of a woman clearly in distress
* their reward levels include not-at-all-veiled rape jokes, such as the $25 Get Graped level or the $6000 A Ton of Grape level.
* the promo descriptions of their reward levels imply that women enjoy and actually look for rape, such as: “$25 – Get Graped – We all know why you’re here and what you really want…”

These are the sort of rape jokes that normalize rape culture and promote the harassment of women. Simply saying “we don’t support rape” DOES NOT obviate the fact that this campaign is seeking to profit on rape jokes at the expense of survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and rape – which continue to be a HUGE problem in the geek community these campaign contributors claim to represent.

There are only 10 days left. Please act quickly to remove this campaign and send the message that Indiegogo will not support creators that promote rape and sexual violence, even as a joke.

Unfortunately, what I got back was a whole lot of boiler plate weasel words. And sure enough, not only did IndieGoGo not remove the campaign, THEY FEATURED IT ON THE FRONT PAGE TWO DAYS LATER. So not only was IndieGoGo NOT willing to enforce their own ToS, but they were totally okay with officially endorsing a rape-joke-themed-product! WOO! RAPE JOKE SODA! DRINK UP EVERYONE!

But, guys, guys! It’s okay, because Tentacle Grape Soda totally does not support rape:

Tentacle Grape Soda does not support rape

Rape is a serious subject. The makers of Tentacle Grape (Cosplay Deviants, LLC) do not, in any way, shape, or form condone the despicable act of violence towards women. While we are open minded about the nature of sexual relationships and respect the variety of ways that people choose to express these things, we do not (and never have) supported the idea of unwilling participation… the difference between fantasy and flagrant violence.

That said, Tentacle Grape is a play on the phrase “tentacle rape” – a staple in popular Japanese animated pornography aka “hentai.” The facts are these:

  • The drink is a parody of a parody. (A play on words based on a fictional animated sexual cliché.)
  • The drink doesn’t promote an act of violence – it mainstreams a phrase that already exists in a popular adult subculture.
  • It’s a cartoon image. No actual schoolgirls were assaulted, hurt or violated in the creation of the soft drink. In fact our Mascot Murasaki is quite happy in ALL images of her and her tentacle companion.
  • There have not been, to date, any reported cases of tentacles raping women that we know of. *

While we respect (and agree with) the firm stance opposing sexual violence, we feel strongly that Tentacle Grape soda does not condone this unspeakable act.

*We reserve the right to revoke this bullet point in the event of an impending alien invasion… just in case

Oh, yes, of course. Us awful feminists are just being hysterical and over-sensitive again for thinking that rape jokes – even tentacle rape jokes – shouldn’t fucking be mainstreamed.

And of course the campaign succeeded +$8000 and I hated life and was totally not surprised when I found out later that they’d initially tried to fund on KickStarter, only KickStarter didn’t approve the campaign and they noped on over to IndieGoGo, because IGG is awful. The end.

All of which is why I switched to using KickStarter for my most recent campaign, because seriously. Fuck those guys.

But hey, at least IndieGoGo isn’t GoFundMe

As bad as IGG is, at least it can’t compete with GoFundMe for the crown of The Biggest Asshoe of Crowdfunding Sites. Because GoFundMe, among many other dubious decisions lately, has the distinction of hosting a campaign to give money to Daren Wilson – the #Ferguson cop that murdered Michael Brown. And not only did they not shut the campaign down, but they actually issued a Cease and Desist to Color Lines – an advocacy organization that was pressuring GoFundMe to honor their own fucking ToS and shut down the campaign.

So congratulations, IndieGoGo! You may be willing to profit off of the sale of products that normalize rape jokes and perpetuate rape culture, but at least you’re not literally profiting from the murder of children.

[1] It astounds me that #GamerGate is still a thing. STILL. Like, Jesus. Don’t any of them actually, you know, play games?

[2] Dual Income, No Kids

[3] Although no negative judgement on publishers that prefer and can afford to avoid the crowdfunding model of publishing. It is time-consuming and STRESSFUL, and certainly not how I would like to put out major projects if I had another choice.

[4] That has since changed, owing to the growth of the platform and number of campaigns. It’s too early as of yet to say if this will have an effect on the quality of campaigns on the site.

The real truth of #GamerGate

[Written in the style of Mallory Ortberg, who is awesome]

Your bunkmates are already fast asleep when you fall wearily onto the hard mattress; it’s been a long, tiring day of back-breaking labor in the camps.  Tired as you are, however, your thoughts are unsettled and sleep seems elusive.

Once, years ago, you would have felt anger about the accident of birth that forced you into this state, but now you accept your fate. You are but a man, and the strength of men exists to serve the greater good. Or at least that’s what they tell you, and who are you to question them?

At last you decide that sleep will not come and reach under your mattress, pulling out the small handheld hidden there. Pulling your blanket over your head to hide the glow of the screen, you turn it on, eagerly waiting to resume from where you left off. But the screen barely has time to flash HITMAN 37 before you hear a tremendous crash as the door to your dormitory is kicked off its hinges. “WE’VE FOUND HIM,” someone shouts.

No time to hide the evidence – the blanket is suddenly yanked from your head and you find two large Gaming Police officers standing over you, your terrified expression reflected back at you in their mirrored sunglasses.

The first officer snatches the handheld away from you and pops out the disc. “Code 37 – no female protagonist,” she grunts, snapping the disc in half in her fist.

The second officer flashes her badge – GAME POLICE: FEMINIST CRITIC, and your heart sinks. Being apprehended by the Gaming Police was bad enough, but that they have a Game Critic with them? This is bad, very bad. The Critic grabs you by the collar, half-choking you as she pulls you to your feet. “Playing games after curfew, huh? Well guess what, bub?” She pulls you closer and the light glints coldly off her earrings. “Games are for women.”

You feel the cold metal of handcuffs snap around your wrists. “We’re taking you in,” the first officer says coldly.

You pray that she only means you’ll be going to a reeducation center, but then she holds a retinal scanner up to your face and it immediately sounds an alarm. “Repeat offender,” it squeals.

You look back to your bunkmates, but none of them will meet your gaze. “You know what that means,” the Critic growls. “Time to go.”

You’re stuffed in the back of a small transport that is packed with other terrified men. Nothing is said by anyone as you are driven out of the camps and into the capitol city itself. Any other time, you would have gasped – while living in the camps, you never would have imagined that such grandeur was possible. But you keep silent, not wanting to make things worse for yourself than they already are.

At last you stop and are unloaded in front of what can only be the palace. It is a place you have heard of but never seen, a place designed to strike fear into the hearts of men.

You stand before the Gamer Gate – which stands open before you. Constructed entirely of bone, it gleams coldly white under the floodlights that illuminate the palace exterior. Lining the walkway to the palace steps are the dread female warriors, said to be able to strike any man dead where he stands with a single glance – the Social Justice Warriors. And there in formation behind them are their male honor guard, the White Knights, proudly bearing the black, white, and red banner of the Feminist Gynocracy.

The Critic and the Gamer Police march you, along with their other captives, up the steps of the palace and into a great hall. At one end of the great hall stands a throne of skulls, upon which sits a woman, who proudly wears the womb-shaped badge of a Game Journalist. Stunned, you find her both beautiful and terrible to behold.

You are thrown to the floor in front of the throne. The skulls leer at you mockingly as the Game Journalist considers your fate. “And just who are you?”

“A gamer,” you whisper. You had intended it as a statement of defiance, but your voice sounds small and frightened. You clear your throat and try again. “A gamer! I am. I am a gamer.”

The Game Journalist smiles, a terrible rictus to match the throne on which she sits. “Too bad for you. Gamers are over.” She snaps her fingers, pointing at the captain of her guard. “Execute him! Add his skull to my throne!”

“Wait!” From the shadows behind the throne steps a third woman who wears the robes of a Game Developer. “You may yet be spared, if…” She smiles like the cat that got into the cream. “…you consent to become my lover and say good things about my latest game.”

You draw back, horrified. “Never!”

A murmur passes through the ranks of the assembled Social Justice Warriors. “He does not consent,” The Critic says sternly.

“It is our highest law,” the Game Developer agrees sadly.

The Game Journalist sits back on her throne. “Then flay him alive and add his bones to the Gate.”

You can only scream in horror as the White Knights step forward to take you away.

fin

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