Advice for women looking to get into game design: Part 1

[ETA: Part 2 is now up! You can find it here! Part 3 is here.]

Before we get started

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[1]”. 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.

As a new writer in the industry, you can expect to make between 2-3 cents per word. That’s it. But as a self-publisher? You get all the profit, minus only expenses related to distribution, which adds up much more quickly.

Real-world example:

The work that I did for V20: Dark Ages was at a contracted rate of 3 cents per word. 3 cents per word times several thousand words means that my final fee was several hundred dollars.

Contrast that with SexyTime Adventures: the RPG, my stupid satirical dungeon-running not-even-a-standalone-hack of Dungeon World that’s mostly an exercise in mocking bad fantasy cheesecake art. I shoe-stringed producing it and it wound up costing me $35 total. To date, it has earned me more money than the work I did on V20: Dark Ages[3].

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:

Self-publishing pros Self-publishing cons
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[2]

[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.


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.


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.

[1] Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat, Green Ronin, Onyx Path, etc etc

[2] This section was originally written as a Google+ post, which you can find here.

[3] Full disclosure: that’s not factoring in the 30% pay bump that was one of the KickStarter stretch goals. By that metric, it falls just short.

Women working on D&D: my complicated feels

Necessary disclaimers

This post might seem a little arcane, since it is rooted in a Twitter dustup that stemmed from a misunderstanding (funny how 140 characters makes it easy to lose context…). However, I also think it’s a good look at the messy what-goes-in-the-sausage side of game development, and how increasing diversity in game development isn’t as straightforward or as easy as it sounds.

(Before I get started, let me assert that this post isn’t meant to be seen as taking sides, in any form or fashion. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation! I know the internet doesn’t like nuance, but that’s what’s being expressed here, so deal.)

Let me explain… No. Is too long. Let me sum up.

So here’s how it all went down. Tumblr user teal-deer made a post called “There are now Zero Women working on Dungeons and Dragons“. From that post:

Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, an editor who previously worked both on Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, was laid off on January 28th.

This means of the mere eight remaining employees working on Dungeons and Dragons, zero of them are women. This is a huge problem. –teal-dear (follow link for full post)

Subsequent to this post, rollforproblematic made a post about WotC D&D demographics as compared to Paizo’s demographics. Which is where Jessica Price, a project manager at Paizo, stepped in to provide comment about demographics at Paizo and the realities of uncredited work that might add to the perception of lack of female participation. Jessica’s post is classy and professional, only commenting on her direct experience at Paizo and not mentioning WotC or D&D even in passing.

However, Jessica Price has her tumblr set to push tumblr posts to Twitter, which – because of the format restriction – only includes the first line in the tweet; when making a response to a threaded Tumblr post, what appears in the pushed tweet is very often not written by the replying person in the first place. So it’s pretty understandable that there was some confusion about what it was that Jessica Price was actually saying. Unfortunately, how people reacted to that confusion was to start making angry posts on Twitter.

Mike Mearls got the ball rolling by making this rather combative tweet:


Now to be fair, he did follow up his tweet with this one:


…which is a sentiment I agree with! And plan to blog about in the future! But wow is this not the way to express that sentiment. Especially when you follow it up with a series of tweets listing women on the team in non-design positions without actually mentioning their names in the tweets. (This is something that happens to women all the damn time, where we are credited by position as “a woman” and not actually by name, and it sucks.)

So what could charitably[1] be seen as preventing the erasure of women in development suddenly starts look a lot more like an ally using the mere existence of women as a shield against criticism, which is the “I have coworkers that are black” of feminism. Furthermore, you have a male developer using the existence of these unnamed female coworkers as a bludgeon to demand an apology from a female developer for criticism that wasn’t actually hers. Which reads as an ally demanding feminism cookies at best and a man in a position of authority using their status to silence a woman making unwanted criticism at worst.

All of which is… incredibly problematic.

Even so! Jessica Price kept it classy and responded with:

…But the original post isn’t mine, and my responses are addressing comments about Paizo’s demographics. I have no expertise/interest in commenting on WotC’s demographics; if you want to talk about that, please remove me. … –Jessica Price (you can read the full thread here, or most of it)

And Mike Mearls apologized for the discussion, and that was pretty much that. (At least as far as I’m aware. Phew.)

All in all, pretty short-lived for a Twitter dustup. However, it left me with… well… a lot of complicated feels.

The feels and their complications

1. Mike Mearls’ response was not okay.

Regardless of the intent behind his tweets, the response that Mike Mearls chose to make was not okay. Women in the industry already have to deal with a bewildering array of harassers, trolls, and sea lions. So this kind of belligerence directed at a prominent female industry figure by one of the luminaries of the TRPG world is just not okay. Even if Jessica Price had been the one making the original criticism, this kind of combative defensiveness is not an appropriate response to what was actually a civilly expressed criticism, despite Tumblr’s shortening of the post making it appear otherwise.

Mike Mearls has expressed a desire to be an ally in that he wants to work for increasing diversity and inclusion within D&D products and the industry as a whole. Well part of being an ally is being able to take criticism on the chin. Yeah, it fucking sucks. But as a person of privilege, you do not get to prioritize your feelings over a marginalized person’s expression of marginalization. That is allying incorrectly.

2. Women in gaming who assume non-design roles are valuable

There is a weird cult of the Game Designer in TRPG circles, which sucks because there are an awful lot of women out there in non-design roles doing work that is vital to the community. Convention organizing! Event organizing! Community building! All of these are vital! Gaming is a hobby that requires community, and that requires a space and a time to happen. Without the women doing this work, our hobby wouldn’t be what it is.

Furthermore, we need to erase the myth of the Solitary (Male) Game Designer, because game design is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a craft that requires community to be successful. And so often it’s women providing vital first feedback and design advice who aren’t even recognized for the importance of their contributions to the final work.

2a. Credit where credit is due

If women are going to start having their contributions recognized, men in positions of power need to vigorously highlight the participation of women.

2b. Women often get pushed out of design and into support roles

Over on Google+, David Hill made the point that very often, women working in non-design support roles don’t want to be working in those roles.

Gosh, I think I’ve heard this story before. One of my good friends was hired for design and concept work at a major video game studio. Immediately upon relocating and starting, they decided she’d be a better fit off the design team, and as a community manager. With a pay cut.

Wait. This isn’t one of my friends. This is a lot of them.

Which still doesn’t change the fact that there are no women on the game design team. That’s a fact. Yet, people have to apologize for saying this empirical fact, because it erases all the non-game design people working on the property. –David Hill, (entire post here)

I know women who do great work in non-design support positions, and who are passionate about what they do. But it’s undeniable that women do get shunted away from design positions because of gendered workplace expectations.

And unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which is the case here. Because a bunch of internet people descending on them to demand that they talk about their job satisfaction for the purposes of resolving an internet argument isn’t exactly going to elicit honest responses.

3. Silencing women is not okay, community that demands our silence is toxic

I’m going to quote myself from a rant I made on Twitter (albeit lightly edited for grammar) that was partly inspired by this Twitter dustup, but also by a messily complicated situation I’m dealing with in my real life:

It is important to recognize that the work that women do in building community IS work and that it IS valuable. Women who build community are not less valuable because they are performing the role they were socialized to adhere to.

But it’s also important to recognize that women also serve and foster community in other ways than building community structures/supports. Most women I know have at some point chosen to be silent on an issue that harms them in the interest of community. Community is often a thing that is not built FOR women, but built ON women. A thing that requires their complicity and silence.

The penalty of not remaining silent is not being allowed to participate in the thing that they helped build/grow/foster. I make the choice to remain silent on certain things every day. Some days it is easier than others. Some days it’s an eyeroll and a whatev – nbd. Some days it’s a weight on your chest that makes it impossible to breathe or ask for help.

And I don’t know how to fix it, any of it. My silence won’t fix it. But I can’t deal with the consequences of not-silence. Community that requires the silence of the women who perform labor in its service is not healthy community, but how do we move on from that? I wish I had more than just questions.

4. Female and non-binary designers exist. There are lots of them.

Something that Mike Mearls failed to address is the fact that the core design team is exclusively male. And that is absolutely something he should have acknowledged instead of handwaving about ‘well look at all these women over here!’. Yes, I’m sure that the men on the design team are all eminently qualified and have an impressive roster of design work. But you know what? There are a lot of smart, talented, and experienced non-male designers out there who would be more than qualified to take on designing for D&D.

So getting defensive about the fact that they do have women… who aren’t designers? It feels like moving the goal posts. 0 out of 8 is a shitty ratio, and at the very least it should be acknowledged that, yeah, they could have done better wrt diversity.

4a. No I’m not saying fire Mike Mearls or any of the other male designers and hire a woman

FFS, don’t even start with the strawmen, okay?

5. Fucking up is inevitable. What matters is how you respond when called out.

Seriously. I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times – it’s something that happens to everybody. You’re going to fuck up. Period. And it sucks being called out. Because dammit they should know that you’re not the enemy, and that you had good intentions, right?

Thing is, intent isn’t some magical cure-all. You can’t say “well that’s what I meant was…” and expect that to solve everything, because it won’t.

6. Lastly, walk the fucking walk

This past year, I had an encounter with a Big Name Game Industry Figure that highlights the kind of bullshit that game industry women have to deal with. First he belligerently make mocking comments about positions I’ve taken on my blog, then he attempted to silence me by making dismissive sarcastic remarks. It was an obvious show of power and status wielded against a woman who said things that he didn’t like, and IT FUCKING SUCKED.

And this guy? Someone who has said that he wants diversity in the industry. Someone who has worked to bring in more female writers and designers. And yet when faced with a woman who expressed opinions he didn’t like, he too thought it was totally okay to weaponize his superior status in order to shut up a woman having opinions he didn’t agree with.

It made me furious! Hell, I’m still mad about it! That kind of thing is the kind of shitty microaggression that piles up and drives women out of the industry. So if you’re a dude working in the game industry, you HAVE TO be conscious of the fact that you are always operating from a place of privilege and status, and that weaponizing that status is just not fucking okay.

In summary

It’s a complicated situation! And again, this isn’t intended as a personal attack against Mike Mearls. I’ve written previously about how I like the new direction of D&D and how meeting Mike Mearls gave me hope for the future of the hobby!

Still, this was a giant red flag for me, and yet another check mark on my list of “Reasons Why I’m Glad I Publish My Own Fucking Games” ie “I’m Glad This Is Shit I Don’t Have To Deal With”. Because if I had been Jessica Price, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been so classy in my response.

[1] I’m a bit fan of always making a strenuous effort to read charitably. Mostly because so much of what I say here gets deliberately quoted out of context elsewhere.

Reflections on cultural osmosis

(I promise this post isn’t a post about children, but it is inspired by my kid so that’s where we’re going to start. But it’s still totally relevant to gaming, honest.)

My husband and I have differing philosophies when it comes to the problem of Santa and the question of whether we would teach the kid about Santa or not. Previous to this year, the question was more academic than anything. However, while my daughter isn’t quite old enough to understand all the trappings of Christmas, she’s now definitely of an age to be learning from this year what Christmas is about. So we found ourselves needing to reach some sort of detente.

Thankfully, my mother-in-law provided an elegant solution: never comment on the question of Santa’s existence. We need never confirm or deny the existence of Santa, because the culture at large will take care of the issue for us. If she believes, she believes – and vice versa. And this way the disagreement between my husband and I becomes something we can live with, because neither of us will be taking a course of action opposed to the philosophy of the other parent.

Watching the results of our experiment (children are living experiments, only there’s no way to prove the hypothesis until it’s way too late to affect the outcome) has been interesting. Despite the fact that we have not provided any sort of instruction in the Santa myth, my daughter can now point to the Santa ornaments on our tree and identify them as Santa. She can also identify reindeer, though it’s unclear whether this is a result of Santification or just her obsession with learning to identify animals. And she has come home with a few Santa-related crafts made at the daycare, which tells me there must be at least a small amount of Santa lore being delivered there.

Of course, this process has also been a bit unsettling as well. Because here is proof that even at the age of two and a half, the simple act of failing to talk about a cultural idea with our daughter means that she is slowly absorbing the cultural default through contact with the culture as a whole. And sure, it’s true that if we cared to we could educate her from day one about how Santa is a myth and etc etc etc, we’d probably have a kid that didn’t believe in Santa at all. But even then, she’s still going to perceive Santa/Christmas as the default cultural event of the season until she’s old enough to learn about different traditions, because that’s just how cultural background radiation works.

So what does this have to do with games already?

In my last post, I talked about (among other things) Valve/Steam’s handling of indie shooter game Hatred – a game in which you play a white man going on a violent rampage where the goal is to cause as much carnage as possible before being killed by law enforcement. One particular point that I made was the harm that Hatred commits in helping perpetuate a harmful cultural narrative:

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.

Predictably some people got super upset about this. How dare I say that video games cause violence! Didn’t I know there was all kinds of science proving that false? Clearly I’m just some sort of science-hating feminazi! And on and on, you get the idea. The only problem is: that isn’t what I was saying at all. Saying that I was seriously arguing that violent video games directly cause violence is a gross over-simplification to the point of straw-manning what I was actually saying. Which is that cultural narratives matter, and that mindlessly contributing to harmful cultural narratives is harmful.

In much the same way that my daughter is learning about Santa through passive cultural osmosis, other children are absorbing the dominant cultural narrative that glorifies rugged individualism and violent hypermasculinity because that’s how cultural osmosis fucking works. Games like Hatred that mindlessly replicate depictions of hypermasculine violence without making even the smallest effort to be critical of that violence are contributing to the cultural background radiation that informs our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREEEEENNNN here.


Far from it! I’m actually pretty excited for the time, not too distant from now, when I can start playing games with my daughter and introducing her to the best parts of what gaming can be.

BUT. I’m also going to be careful to have truthful, critical conversations with her about the harmful elements of culture that she’ll encounter through games. Because the ugly reality of being a child-haver is that you can’t protect children from the harmful elements of cultural background radiation, no matter how hard you try. The best you can hope for is to give them tools that will allow them to remain critical and to actively resist accepting kyriarchy as the norm.

I know that despite my best efforts, I’m going to fail at some things. Because the same harmful ideas I’m attempting to teach my kid to resist are the same ones that I absorbed through passive cultural osmosis myself. Growing up, none of the adults in my life ever said anything overtly racist. But that didn’t stop me from growing up with unconscious racist attitudes, or from saying embarrassingly racist shit when I was in University. (That’s not to say that I’m perfect now, but I’d certainly like to think that I’ve gotten better.)

It also didn’t protect me from all of the unspoken sexism that I internalized. No one ever said that women were inferior. Indeed, the opposite was frequently articulated. Women are equal to men! Sexism is an outdated ideal! Women deserve equal rights and equal pay! But that message didn’t align with the reality of the social stigma for being outspoken, not conforming to traditional standards of femininity, and not confining my life aspirations to traditionally “female” career paths. So is it any wonder that as an adult, what I struggle with more than anything is allowing myself to feel as if I have worth? As if I am allowed to occupy space and want not-traditionally-feminine things?

And let’s not forget that it’s not only children who are susceptible to the harmful influence of our culture. There is a wealth of scientific data about the myriad negative effects that women suffer from being surrounded by a culture of sexism. There is also a growing body of evidence about the deleterious effects of sexist media on men, not the least of which is that men who consume sexist media display higher rates of sexist attitudes. Much as we like to delude ourselves that we’re too smart to be affected by the media we consume, scientifically speaking – that is demonstrably not the case.

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


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.


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:



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]


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:


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:


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:


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:


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


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.


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