GenCon 2019, learned community helplessness, and the benefits of actually banning predators

Important Preamble

Despite the fact that I have been attending GenCon every year for around fourteen years, I hadn’t planned on attending GenCon this year, and was sort of shocked when things ended up such that I was able to go. See, about four or five years ago was when Z, my long-time harasser and a huge part of why I shut this blog down in 2016, began attending GenCon. And despite being a known serial harasser who oozed toxicity and had been responsible for harassing dozens of people out of the games industry and community, for more than a decade people just sort of shrugged their shoulders and enabled his abuse by saying things like “you have to separate art from artist” or “removing Z would be censorship”.

That is, if they didn’t outright deny the reality of those who spoke publicly about Z’s abuse – a feat which required no small amount of mental gymnastics, given that even the people I met who described Z as a friend would always begin their descriptions of him as “sure, he’s an asshole, but…”

Anyway. So Z started going to GenCon, and worse than that, he started winning LOTS of Ennies for his games. (Ennies are like the oscars of TTRPGs, with everything that implies about awards handed out by a community of mostly old white dudes.) I started having panic attacks in the lead up to GenCon, panic attacks that got worse every year. In 2018 Z was nominated for (and won) four Ennies, and I had two weeks of devastating panic attacks leading up to the convention that only partially abated when I promised myself that 2018 would be my last year. I love GenCon more than I can possibly articulate, but the thing that I loved was harming me, and I needed to not repeat the mistakes I made in 2016 by continuing on a course of action that was harming me because of a misguided need to “win”.

So 2018 was the year I said goodbye GenCon.

From 2018: Goodbye you weird fucking UFO-thing. I don’t know why I love you, but I do.

Because it was going to be my last year, I made lunch and dinner appointments with various movers and shakers in the TTRPG industry outside of my usual circles and I told them my story. I told them about how I was being forced out of a community space that I loved because of someone who everyone knew was toxic and bad for the community. And universally, the reaction from the influencers I talked with was sympathetic but bewildered refusal to actually do anything or take a stand.

You see, my story was so sad, so sad. And obviously I didn’t deserve any of what happened to me, and clearly I shouldn’t be punished for my abuser’s actions. It’s just too bad that absolutely. Nothing. Could. Be. Done. Because what could possibly be done about someone like Z? What action could possibly be taken to protect the people he victimized in order to make them feel safe in existing in this community space? What a mystery. What a complete and total mystery. Truly a mystery for the ages that may never be solved.

…if I sound salty about it, it’s because I am.

But then February happened – and four brave women who should not have had to retraumatize themselves in public for us to do something bravely spoke out with credible accusations of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape. And finally. FINALLY. Z was canceled.

So, GenCon 2019 was back in the cards.

At the convention

Coming back after I thought I had said goodbye to GenCon forever was a wild ride. It was a bit embarrassing running into people that I had told about my situation last year, assuming that I wasn’t ever going to meet them again – especially those who weren’t familiar with everything that had happened with Z in February. I was a goddamn mess in 2018, and I even complained to (a really super nice and super decent) publisher from Korea who I met for all of five minutes last year – which made it all the more mortifying when he saw me this year and remembered who I was and was really very nice.

Social awkwardness aside, however, this year was an overwhelmingly positive and recharging experience, untainted by fear, anxiety, trauma, or panic attacks. Not having to worry about Z completely transformed how I experienced GenCon!

In previous years, I spent lots of time and energy making plans for how to avoid the places Z would be, and emergency plans for what to do if I ran into him. I made sure I had refills of my emergency meds for panic attacks. I made lists of names of friends, phone numbers, and where they could be found at the convention if something happened and I needed to be around someone safe. I made maps of the dealer’s room with the booth Z was working at so that I knew which section of the dealer’s room to avoid. All of this was important to help me deal with the anxiety and panic attacks that the idea of being in the same spaces as Z caused, and I got used to anxiety and panic attacks being part of my GenCon prep.

This year, the convention snuck up on me! I’d gotten so used to panic attacks being my “it’s time to think about GenCon GM prep” alarm that I didn’t do any of my prep until about two days before I left for the convention. Neither did I have a single panic attack, although I still had the usual anxiety dreams about forgetting to run my games and getting kicked out of the convention. (Anxiety is a cruel mistress.) And at the con the vibe was so relentlessly, uniformly excited and positive, without the usual undercurrent of simmering resentment about our community’s enabling of known abusers.

…seriously, the number of years I’ve gone to the Diana Jones Awards only to have 50% or greater of my conversations there be about how bullshit it was that Z had been nominated for so many Ennies… The dude occupied a lot of mental real estate!

But none of that was clear until Sunday of the convention, and a pithy observation made by a dear friend who happens to be a cishet white guy over lunch. He quipped that it was great that ‘the toxic cloud had lifted’, and that everyone he talked to had been having an equally positive experience of the convention. The metaphor was so striking, because it precisely described my experience. It highlighted the emotional reality of something that I had always known intellectually: when you remove predators from your community, the entire community benefits.

So why? WHY did it take so long for the community to act when the benefits were so clear and so widespread?

The learned helplessness inherent in “there’s nothing to be done”

There has been a lot of ink spilled about the problem of Geek Social Fallacies in geekdom, the first of which is that “ostracizers are evil”. And of course, the Geek Social Fallacies are still very endemic in gaming spaces. It creates a reluctance to remove people from communities, even for the best of reasons – because excluding people makes you a bad person. So the focus shifts from removing bad actors to reducing conflict, with the rationalization that conflict is the real problem.

However, this is the logic that inevitably sees abusers enabled, if not rewarded with status and position, while their victims – usually marginalized people – are run out of the community. This happens either tacitly, when marginalized victims “pro-actively” opt not to participate in communities that include their abusers. However, it also happens more actively – when victims of prominent abusers speak their truth and are actively run out of a community for creating conflict. When you make excluding people an unforgiveable sin, the only way to keep a community energized and active is to persecute people who question the unjust structures that protect abusers.

And of course, the people who are most vigorous in persecuting marginalized people who question the unjust status quo are those with the most privilege, who naturally don’t see anything hypocritical about holding the belief that “ostracizers are evil” while actively ostracizing marginalized victims of abuse. Because these “defenders of the community” are inevitably cishet white dudes with an extraordinary amount of unexamined privilege who have convinced themselves that the childhood bullying they experienced for their geeky interests is exactly the same as the experiences of marginalization faced by queer people, women, people of color, and people from other marginalized groups.

These assumptions calcify into immutable laws that create patterns of behavior, patterns that long-term members of the community have seen repeat endlessly, with little to no variation in the ultimate results. And this endless cycle creates learned helplessness even in those who are aware enough to realize the injustice being perpetrated, because it all feels too big to be changed. What could possibly be done that hasn’t been tried before? What could be done to make this time, this instance not another repetition in the endless cycle? People, especially people with privilege, become so mired in that sense of futility that they lose sight of the incredibly obvious answer, the answer that victims of abuse have been shrieking all along:

REMOVE. PREDATORS. FROM. YOUR. COMMUNITIES.

The inability of communities to see this solution is willful blindness. Because when someone is a known abuser, there are always people agitating for that person’s removal.

In the case of Z, we knew what he was. Dozens of people spoke about his abuse for more than a decade. We begged for the community to take us seriously and to stop empowering his abuse. But we were the ones who were prosecuted. We were told we were lying. We were demonized for not being “nice” about our abuse. We were told we were the real problem, because we were the ones creating conflict.

But when push came to shove, when the community finally, FINALLY came together and removed Z, EVERYONE BENEFITED. Not just his victims, not just marginalized people, but everyone. Even my friend, the cishet white guy who was never directly targeted by Z, could notice and enthuse on the new positive dynamic created by Z’s removal! Because removing predators from communities creates a space where people feel safe and included, and safe, inclusive communities attract enthusiastic participation. And when that happens, the community as a whole benefits. How could it not?

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GenCon’s Featured Presenters are 52% female, and that’s a huge deal

[Before I start – full disclosure, I am one of the Industry Insider Featured Presenters for this year’s GenCon. So I’m sure that there are those who will say that me writing this post is self-serving arrogance and/or egomania, but whatever.]

The GenCon Industry Insider Featured Presenters for 2016 have been announced, and holy shit is this year’s lineup amazing! Seriously, take a look:

GenCon-2016-IIFP2
For some reason they let me be one too. Not sure what that’s about. [joking]
That’s right, folks. There are 13 female IIFPs and only 12 men. This means there are MORE WOMEN THAN MEN, and that is a HUGE FUCKING DEAL, because that is a HUGE amount of change in a really short period of time. To prove it, let’s look at the numbers:

That said, while gender parity has been achieved, there’s still some progress to be made on other fronts. While there is increased representation of LGBT people, the lineup is still pretty darn white. Even so, the current lineup is a lot less cishet and is less white than in years past, which is encouraging. To quote Jessica Price, an IIFP and developer at Paizo:

Does this magically fix all of tabletop gaming’s misogyny problems? No. But women being recognized as gaming authorities, our work being highlighted, our input being sought, and just our presence in equal numbers with men helps

And importantly, this lineup is much more reflective of the diversity of activity within the gaming industry as a whole. In years past, in order to get selected you pretty much had to be a cishet white dude working for a mainstream company on trad tabletop games. But this year’s lineup includes a wide swath of thought-leadership in the hobby, including tabletop publishers, LARP designers, event organizers, activists, critics, podcasters, academics, and community managers. Which is EXCITING! I can’t wait to see what sort of discussion comes out of this year’s panels!

Lastly, there’s one other reason to be excited about this lineup, and it’s a doozy.

GenCon: First Industry convention to achieve parity

GenCon is pretty much THE FIRST major gaming industry convention to achieve gender parity in it’s lineup of guests of honor / special guests / featured guests / featured presenters – from here on out referred to as the GoH lineup, just so I don’t have to keep typing all of that out. (Honestly it would make my life a lot easier if the industry could agree on a standard term, event organizers. Just sayin’.) Don’t believe me? Let me back that up with some numbers.

I went looking at the GoH lineup for every convention in the United States and Canada with attendance over 10,000 that included gaming (of any kind) as a primary or secondary focus. (Sourced using Wikipedia, here)

This means that conventions without a GoH program were excluded, such as BlizzCon, Minecon, and PAX. (Although to be fair, PAX might have a GoH program, but their website was terrible and I gave up looking after twenty minutes.) I also didn’t include Game Developers Conference, despite being one of the major industry conferences, because they have a list of speakers with hundreds of people, but not a list of GoH, and given that I’m in school right now I just don’t have time for that shit. Lastly, E3 was also not included because they have industry partners and sponsors, but no GoH.

That left a list of 10 conventions. Most of them, finding a roster of 2016 GoH was easy, but for whatever reason I had trouble with IndieCade, so I counted their lineup for 2015, figuring that was a good enough approximation. And here’s what I came up with:

graph
CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW

Out of the ten conventions surveyed, only MarCon had more representation of women. However, while MarCon does include gaming as a secondary focus, it’s primarily a sci-fi and anime convention; it’s gaming presence is very small, and it’s not one of the major stops on the typical gaming industry convention tour. (I say this not to knock MarCon – it’s quite lovely, and I’ve been several times, before I left the US for Canada.)

So out of major gaming industry conventions? GenCon comes out clearly on top. The next-most even gender split of conventions that are more than just video games is Momo Con, which is still nearly two thirds male and has Totalbiscuit – one of the big names of GamerGate – as a GoH, for fuck’s sake.

Reactions to the lineup

There have been some encouragingly positive reactions to the announcement of the IIFP lineup. Both The Mary Sue and BoingBoing have highlighted the lineup and what it means for the industry.

But of course, there have also been those who are… less pleased with this development. Both Jessica Price and Whitney “Strix” Beltran (who was an IIFP last year, but not this year) have faced sexist backlash about the composition of the IIFP lineup – despite the fact that one of them is not a current IIFP and neither of them have anything to do with the selection process. Some of the “arguments” being presented are:

  • Old school RPGs are the only “real” RPGs
  • Mainstream trad games outsell indie games, and thus indie developers don’t matter
  • Indies chosen as IIFPs were selected because of pretentious identity politics and not merit
  • The current lineup is a result of “SJW gatekeepers”

Thankfully, the amount of obviously sexist MRA garbage has been fairly small as of yet. However, there are those who have reacted by expressing puzzlement about why GenCon would select such an “obscure” lineup, or by speculating that only “unknowns” must be applying to the IIFP program.

Which. Ugh. There’s not as much gross sexism in that sort of response, but it’s still pretty insulting hearing people imply that the obvious increase in diversity must be as a result of an overall decrease of merit. And I could write a couple thousand words on that alone, but I think I’ll let Elizabeth Sampat and Jessica Price take it from here:

ESampat

JPrice
This isn’t actually a reply to Elizabeth’s tweet, it just amused me to place them this way

Mic. Dropped.

SXSW, GamerGate, and bears

I don’t blog much about GamerGate anymore, and for the most part it’s faded from a lot of online discussion, now that anyone with any semblance of empathy or ability to think of women as people has left GamerGate behind. However, GamerGate is still very much active, and all the more frightening now that it has crystallized into an actual hate group. (No, really. I’m not even kidding.)

So it was a bit baffling that SXSW, a huge pop culture convention/festival centered around music, film, and interactive entertainment decided to allow a pro-GamerGate panel on their roster of upcoming events, especially given that there was also to have been a panel about online harassment featuring Randi Harper, Katherine Cross, and Brianna Wu – three of GamerGate’s favorite targets.

Predictably, there were threats made against the festival and its organizers, because of course there were – this is GamerGate we’re talking about. And rather than commit to providing extra security, SXSW canceled both the pro-GamerGate panel and the online harassment panel. Despite that SXSW is a huge festival that makes absurd amounts of money, and they have played host to some pretty damn big names in the past and have done just fine in providing them with extra security.

Even more ludicrous was the fact that the SXSW organizers then proceeded to pat themselves on the back, calling the decision “strong community management”. Which is when I conceived of this great idea for a comic, explaining how absolutely ludicrous that decision is by substituting “GamerGate” for “bears”, and then exaggerating for comedic effect.

Unfortunately, then my three year old decided to share her cold with me, and by the time I had it finished and got around to posting it, SXSW had already acknowledged that their previous decision was a mistake, which kills some of the humor. Still, I’m pretty proud of how it came out:

bears

Oh well. Even if I didn’t act quickly enough to post for maximum internet hilarity, I still got to draw angry bears – which was pretty awesome.

Now something I will point out is that this comic is a bit reductive in painting this purely as GamerGate versus Randi Harper, Brianna Wu, and Katherine Cross – when the panel that they had wanted to host is actually about online harassment more broadly, not just as part of GamerGate. (Katherine Cross in particular has said that she has been trying to leave GamerGate behind and to move on with her work and her activism.) Still, the fact remains that GamerGate remains the genesis of their anti-harassment work, and still constitutes a large share of the abuse that they receive online.

It is encouraging to see SXSW not only acknowledge that their decision was wrong-headed, but also put together a day-long event that already has a pretty awesome roster of speakers. It would have been nicer if this summit had been something that could have happened without a giant debacle of this nature. But hopefully the extra publicity generated by the bungled handling of this matter will end up resulting in additional publicity for a much-needed event.

GenCon followup: On “Industry Insiders”, Recognition, and Unequal Access [LONG]

Part the First: GenCon’s “Industry Insider” Program

The lack of diversity of GenCon’s Guest of Honor lineup is something that I’ve written about before, and rather stridently so. After the complete embarrassment that was 2011, in which the lineup of 16 Guests of Honor included only 1 woman – Margaret Weis – GenCon has been making noises about wanting increased diversity in it’s GoH rosters. Their track record on that front, however, hasn’t been all that great. 2014’s lineup was actually LESS inclusive of women than 2012. And a lot of the changes that have been made, supposedly in the name of greater inclusiveness, have been pretty fucking tone deaf.

Take, for example, the name of the program – which used to be the “Guest of Honor” track. It was pointed out by myself and others that having Guests of Honor that were almost exclusively white and male was hugely problematic! Because, as I said in my first post on the issue:

A convention as large and as venerable [as GenCon] can be seen as affirming the status quo of a male-dominated games industry. Even worse, it seems to lend credence to the idea that women just aren’t doing work worth honoring in the games industry, which isn’t true – though there are (I’m sure) plenty of people who would like to believe that’s the case so that they can continue to justify the sexism that runs rampant in game marketing and development.

So how did GenCon respond to these concerns? Well, aside from some half-hearted attempts to get more women to apply, they just… changed the name of the program. First to the “Industry Insider Guest of Honor Program” in 2014, and this year to “Industry Insider Featured Presenters“.

On the surface, it’s nominally a good change – and is something that I actually pushed for in last year’s post on the matter. The problem is that the name change was suggested as a way of having a two-track Guest of Honor program – one for the startlingly not-diverse pool of Industry Insiders, many of whom are honored several years in a row, and an actual Guest of Honor track that would allow for not-hetciswhitedude GoHs that would be able to actually bring diverse programming to GenCon. And that’s the part that GenCon has completely failed to follow through on. (You know, the part that actually matters.)

Changing the name of the program doesn’t actually do anything to resolve any of the concerns that have been expressed about lack of diversity. Call the program what you will – Guest of Honor, Industry Insider, whatever. But functionally speaking, the Industry Insider program is indistinguishable from what any other convention would call a Guest of Honor program. What is being honored by GenCon is whiteness and maleness, and that is something that a name change simply can’t fix. Changing the name on the box doesn’t actually fix any thing if what’s in the box is THE SAME FUCKING THING IT ALWAYS WAS.

Now have some improvements been made? Certainly. This year’s lineup featured 8 women out of a pool of 26 GoHs, which means that women made up 30% of the lineup. And sure that’s still a depressing minority, but at least it’s moving in the right direction with regards to gender equality. However, acknowledging that it’s incredibly fucking difficult and hugely problematic to make assumptions regarding someone’s racial identity based on their appearance, the fact remains that range of skin tones is still monochromatic! If the only meaningful representation that is increased is the representation of white women, then it cannot be claimed that diversity has been achieved.

A defense that has been raised “against” these concerns by some has been “well women aren’t applying to the program”. Which. Just. NO. I’ve already written a couple thousand words about why “women aren’t applying” is NOT an acceptable response to concerns about lack of diversity in an organization, and they’re all on-point so rather than quote myself I’ll just say go here and read if you haven’t already.

Part the Second: Recognition

I had what felt like an important moment at the Diana Jones Award ceremony (which I enjoy going to because I always meet at least one cool person and I also get to see friends I wouldn’t see otherwise). When Matt Forbeck got up onstage to announce the winner of this year’s award, I was talking with Ajit George and Mark Diaz-Truman, who are both visibly not-white guys who have done a lot of work to increase diversity in gaming.

So the winner is announced (Guide to Glorantha, if you’re curious), and six white guys got up on the stage and had their moment of recognition. I honestly can’t remember which of us said something first, but I do remember observing that this year was my fourth year attending the DJAs and I had never seen anyone other than a white guy on that stage to win the award. After which there was a moment of depressed reflection, because Jesus. It’s such a sad indictment of this fucking industry.

The games industry has this fucked up masturbatory circle of recognition that only includes men recognizing the work of other men – the overwhelming majority of whom are white. And it’s fucking HEARTBREAKING, because I know so very many amazing people who are women, queer, nonbinary, PoC, and various combinations of some or all of those traits who are doing amazing and valuable work that enriches the game industry and game design as a whole. And yet year after year AFTER YEAR, the people who get recognized are most often white guys who have been part of the old boy’s club in the industry for decades. And I KNOW someone is going to say that I think all work by white guys is garbage and should be killed with fire, and that’s not what I’m saying at all. But when the only people winning awards are white guys who are getting awards from other white guys and this is a pattern that persists, you gotta admit that it’s pretty fucked up.

And yet, the people who attempt to point this out are reviled, castigated, and demonized.  Last year, I found myself having to send the following email to someone about an industry dude who was really unhappy with what I’d written about the Guest of Honor program and used his status in an obvious show of power meant to make me feel bad: (serial numbers filed off to protect the guilty)

I was meeting up with some folk in the dealer’s room at the end of the day when I happened to encounter a Really Big Deal Industry Guy. And RBDIG? Apparently not happy about things I’d said about about GenCon and it’s GoH program – specifically the part where I was arguing that we need to decrease the representation of hetwhitecis dudes. He was very aggressive and made me very defensive as I tried to explain the context of my comments, that I wasn’t disputing the merit of any individual, that I know and respect and look up to a good many people on the list.

So then RBDIG aggressively declared that if women don’t apply to the program, there’s nothing to be done. End of story. Still feeling defensive, I tried to explain how women can be made to feel like they’re not really welcome to apply (I didn’t even try to broach the topic of how economics is a barrier for a lot of women, what with the wage gap, lack of accessible childcare options, and the expensiveness of the con) and offered some of my personal experiences where I had been made to feel unwelcome in the gaming community.

Finally after about fifteen minutes of back and forth, RBDIG just said sarcastically “well I’m going to go own my privilege and have a steak”. And it made me really, really angry.

This was a situation where RBDIG, as the industry professional with the big name, had all of the power. And despite the fact that I was polite and re-explained the context of my remarks and stuck solely to discussing my personal experience and feelings, he was aggressive and rude. And he closed our interaction with a passive-aggressive remark seemingly intended to drive home the power imbalance between us. I literally had not exchanged more than two words with RBDIG before this, but I’d only ever heard good things about him and people that I know in our community have expressed respect for him. And again, nothing about my remarks were intended to question anyone’s qualifications or merits as a Guest of Honor. They were simply intended to address the fact that in order to increase diversity, they need to stop including so many white guys.

It fucking sucked. And yet that’s the BEST of the sort of bullshit that not-hetciswhitedudes get when they have the temerity to question the status quo regarding recognition in the industry. At least because I’m white, no one was actually afraid of me for being angry, which is a thing that actually happened in real life. One of the people who also spoke out against the lack of diversity in 2014’s lineup had an industry person actually express fear of them when they met face to face this year.
Sigh.

Part the Third: Access

GenCon, unlike pretty much every other convention on the planet, doesn’t actually offer any monetary support for GoHs beyond providing a badge and some marketing – so the Guests of Honor they attract are mostly industry people who would have attended anyway. The Guest of Honor program essentially gets no budget, and when the issue of providing a budget for travel expenses for GoHs arises the response tends to be a lot of helpless shrugging. “It’s not in the budget”, you see – the implication being that GenCon couldn’t afford to provide travel expenses for it’s GoHs since it’s such a large program.

And to that, I say bullshit. Here are this year’s numbers from GenCon’s own website:

Gen Con 2015 has set an all-new attendance record with a unique attendance of 61,423 and a turnstile attendance of 197,695, creating a six-year span of record growth. Since 2010, Gen Con has more than doubled in attendance. Year-over-year, Gen Con has experienced 9% attendance growth, primarily driven by 4-Day and Family Fun Day badge sales.

The growth in badge sale revenue alone is staggering. DOUBLE the unique attendees in five years, with the largest growth seen in the most expensive badge types? GenCon badges are not cheap. There’s also the revenue that GenCon earns selling booth space in the Dealer’s Room. Prices for booth space have risen nigh-exponentially year over year, with no ceiling in sight because vendors are still fighting for the space – there are always more interested vendors than available space, and they’re more than happy to continue paying whatever GenCon wants to get that space. As an indie publisher, I’ve witnessed it first hand. Over the past five years, indies have been almost entirely pushed out of the dealer’s room, with the only vestiges of indie presence being Indie Press Revolution and the Indie Game Developers Network. And prices for booth space will only continue to rise, with no ceiling in sight.

So the idea that GenCon somehow “can’t afford” a budget to support travel expenses for GoHs is laughable at best, and borderline offensive at worst. Because the economics of the thing are actually the largest barrier to increasing diversity!

Getting to GenCon is expensive because Indy is far from fucking everything, hotels are expensive, the badge is expensive, and the food is expensive and not even remotely nutritious. (By the end of the convention, I’m desperate for anything resembling a vegetable.) And the wage gap is still a very real thing, which puts convention attendance out of reach of the sorts of people that the program would most benefit from including! (To say nothing of the issue of childcare, which is a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women and is its own barrier to convention attendance, but that’s a separate issue. Mostly.)

To use a personal example, in my conversation with Ajit George, he asked me why I hadn’t applied to be an Industry Insider for this year’s convention. For me the answer was simple – I had to do too many GM hours to get my room and badge covered for the convention, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go without that support. I didn’t want to do yet another 4-6 hours of panels on top of my already-pretty-bonkers GMing commitment, because then when would I actually play any fucking games? Or have time to eat? Or sleep? Or enjoy hanging out with awesome folk? I’m not getting paid to come to GenCon, and despite that it is as much business as pleasure, I wouldn’t go if it was actively unpleasant or stressful.

And here’s the thing, I joked about doing PovertyCon whenever people asked if I wanted to go get drinks, but the uncomfortable reality is that being in Indy made me blindingly aware of my privilege. Here I was at GenCon, with the ability to spend what I saw as “a bit” of money in the dealer’s room. And yet all of the bathroom attendants? Hispanic and South-Asian women. The porters at the hotel? Overwhelmingly black and brown. The employees at the food court in the mall? More brown and black than white. I may have had to “pinch pennies” to get to GenCon, but I still fucking got to GO TO GENCON.
So if the economics keep me as a white, cisgender, middle class as fuck woman with enough connections to get a room and a badge for free from applying as an Industry Insider, you can sure as shit bet that there’s a whole lot of WAY LESS PRIVILEGED PEOPLE who are going to look at the program, what it’s offering, and say “nope, not even a possibility”.
So, if GenCon wants to put its money where its mouth is in regards to increasing diversity of it’s GoH lineup? It needs to… Well. Put it’s money where its mouth is. Give the GoH program a fucking budget and start actually giving money to qualified applicants who wouldn’t be able to be part of the program without economic support. It won’t fix the problem overnight, but it’ll remove the largest barrier to continuing to move in the right direction.

Now on YouTube: Lady Event Organizer Roundtable

I’ve never been a fan of status games, but my least favorite is this: there’s this thing that happens in the tabletop world where designers occupy the top of the status pyramid and are considered to be solitary geniuses who pull games fully formed from their brain meats.

This is deeply problematic, because it erases the contributions of women in many ways. Game design is not a solitary pursuit, you cannot make a good game without the input of other smart, insightful people – and I know a lot of women who rock at giving playtest feedback that helps to solve design problems for games still in playtesting! It also sucks because there is an ongoing impulse by certain high-status members of the community to gatekeep what “counts” as “a game”, and coincidentally a lot of the work done by women somehow manages to consistently get disqualified in these “conversations”.

But mostly it sucks because it plays into gendered narratives surrounding what is important to our hobby and what is trivial. Game design is seen as a male activity and is thus valued more highly than stereotypically “female” activities – even when those activities improve the hobby as a whole!

It’s something I’ve written about before in my post about a Twitter-flap over women in non-design roles in D&D:

…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.

And it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Event organizing is vital because event organizers are literally creating the spaces where gamers can meet new people and interact with new ideas – which is what is needed to keep our hobby innovative and vibrant. So I’ve been wanting to talk about the work they do and maybe counter some of that for quite a while now. Because the gendered narratives surrounding whose work is valued in our community suck!

The problem that kept me from doing so is that I’m most decidedly Not An Event Organizer. I do pretty okay at keeping myself organized and on task, but event organizing is not (nor is it likely to ever be) one of my skillsets. So I decided that I would recruit some of the awesome women that I know who do event organizing to have a roundtable to highlight their experiences and why what they do is important. (Spoiler alert: it went super well!)

The hangout

Normally this is the sort of thing that one might publicize beforehand, but honestly this was agonizing for me to put together as I was dealing with all of the imposter syndrome. Which is why I put this together, made it happen, and decided to publicize after. Thankfully, all I had to do was let the awesome ladies I assembled talk and say really smart things. It went really well, even if I did say “awesome” too much.

Of course, the process of putting this together made me really appreciate just how much work event organizers do and how invisible that work usually is. This is something that I started trying to put together in January and only just managed now, and I can tell you that even for something this simple there were a fair number of things that I overlooked. (Thankfully everyone was super gracious about it.)

The team that I assembled to help me talk about this ended up being:

(You can also find Krista White and Strix on Twitter.)

Many thanks to the ladies who made this possible. Given how well this went, I might consider doing this in the future if I find myself wanting to spotlight a topic that I don’t have a lot of personal expertise in!

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.

GenCon 2014: The bad and the needs improvement

While I have some posts coming up that are prompted by interactions I had at GenCon, this will be the last post I write explicitly about my experience at GenCon itself (at least for the next little while). I’ve talked about the things that made me excited, as well as specific crappy things observed in the dealers’ room. But I didn’t address negative things outside of the dealers’ room, so here are some observations about things with varying degrees of crappyness.

Bad: Some dude mansplained my shirt to me

One of my birthday gifts this year was a shirt that said “FAKE GEEK GIRL: REAL GEEK WOMAN”. So of course I wore it to GenCon. I mean, how could I not?

Friday morning, I got dressed in The Shirt (and also pants) and headed out to get breakfast, bleary from a late night of awesome awesomeness. As I was standing in line, two guys spotted my shirt. One of them looked excited and said, “oh wow, that’s an awesome shirt! My wife would love that shirt? Where did you get it?”.

Pleased, I said that I did love the shirt but that it was a gift and I didn’t know where it was purchased. And that’s when Complimentary Dude’s mansplainy friend chimed in with, “but you’re not fake”. Which led to the following conversation:

Me: I’m… not a girl.

Mansplainy Friend: But you’re not fake. You’re–

Me: Not a girl. I have a toddler. I pay taxes. I am a woman.

Mansplainy Friend: Yes, but you’re not a fake woman.

Me: Okay, but you’re getting bogged down in the definition of one word. Do you not understand that this shirt is commenting on a larger social phenomenon where women like me have to fight to have our interest in geek culture seen as valid?

…at which point Mansplainy Friend tried to continue the argument, but thankfully Shirt-Complimenting Guy got him to shut up and I collected my breakfast and left.

And I suppose that I really should have expected something of the sort to occur. After all, I did wear the shirt rather expecting that hanging out primarily in tabletop RPG areas would mean that it would provoke some kind of a reaction. Still, in my defense, I don’t think anyone can be entirely blamed for being surprised when someone attempts to mansplain their own clothing to them when they are still in a severely under-caffeinated state.

Bad: I didn’t X-card the jokey sexism in a game that I ran

I was a GM at Games on Demand this year, which turned out to be tons of fun for all of my games except one – a game of Zombie Cinema. (Zombie Cinema is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a fun little game that creates zombie movie plots. It’s eminently replayable and never leaves my bag at conventions, in case I ever find myself with spare time, friends, and desire for a pick-up game that lasts about two hours.)

The problem with that game? There were six people at the table, including myself, but I was the only woman. And three of the six players were, well, the bro-iest of bros. Still, because some of the random character gen options specify gender, we wound up with three female characters, so I was hoping things would turn out well.

Early on in the game, however, the bro players started tossing out stuff about “protecting the women”, which was irritating. I jokingly had my character, a middle-aged mom and secretary, call them on it. At which point it promptly became a running joke throughout the rest of the session. And not the friendly sort of running joke, a “oh this clearly bothers you, so now my character is going to keep doing it” kind of running joke.

At the time, I just thought that it was a B- game of Zombie Cinema. There were some amusing jokes, like how the zombie plague came to be known as “raibola” (rabies/Ebola), but mostly it was a slightly sub-par but still amusing enough for the price of a generic ticket game of Zombie Cinema.

It wasn’t until I ran into James Stuart, the “new” proprietor of Story-Games, fellow GoD GM, and one of the not-bros at the table for the game, that he helped crystallize my annoyance by asking if I was okay with what happened in our game. He said that he was reluctant to X-card them since I seemed okay with it, but at the same time it seemed pretty gross. And at the time I was like, “oh yeah, I was okay, it was just kind of irritating is all”.

But since then I’ve examined that reaction and now I regret not X-carding the jokey sexism once it became a nasty little running joke, because it was a joke that made the game less fun for me. I got trapped in the mindset that because Games on Demand was paying for my badge, I was obligated to provide the players with a fun game. But I forgot that my fun was also an important part of the equation, and the “ha ha girls suck” running “joke” throughout the game definitely made it less fun for me.

And all of this despite an excellent all-hands meeting on Thursday night that stressed that GMs had to consider their own fun as much as their players when deciding what to X-card! So it’s not even like this was a possibility that hadn’t been addressed.

So that’s something I think I’ll need to work on being more aware of next year.

Bad: Casual harassment

I didn’t experience as much of it this year as I have previous years, there was only one creepy dude on the street of the “oh god avert your eyes, don’t make eye contact, stick close to your group” variety that I encountered this year, although he was a doozie. (He started singing at me and pelvic thrusting, although thankfully he didn’t approach me and I was able to give him a wide berth as we passed him on the sidewalk.)

But let me turn that around and say that this year was the best year I’ve had in terms of street harassment. So the fact that I go to GenCon expecting to be creepily harassed and made to feel unsafe by at least one dude while at the convention? That’s messed up.

Another insanely not-cool moment was my very first night at the convention, at a party where I was going to head back to my hotel with my hotel roomie and her boyfriend. On the way out, she stopped at a table to say hi to someone that she knew, and a dude literally grabbed her hand and started trying to pull her into the booth. At which point I started hovering very visibily while wearing my best “we need to leave because I need sleep face”.

And, you know, generally my friend and convention-roomie is a super capable woman and I would trust her to be able to handle her own creeps. But at the same time, Creepy Arm-Hauling Guy was large and I wanted to at least try to shame him into letting go. (Which he did, though probably not because of me, and we made our escape, and that was the end of that.)

And maybe it was because we were at a party? But you know what, fellas? Being drunk is not an excuse for harassing women, even if it’s just because you want to get to know them. Calm the fuck down, and if you can’t behave yourself around strange women when you’re drunk, then DON’T FUCKING DRINK.

Needs improvement: Convention harassment policy signage

One of the things that I forgot to mention in my post about good things about GenCon was the fact that the opening ceremonies of the convention specifically mentioned the harassment policy and that harassment was not okay, and that anyone feeling threatened or uncomfortable should seek out convention staff who would take the situation seriously. WHICH IS GREAT. The fact that GenCon has gone from having effectively no harassment policy to having a well-written policy that staff are being trained on? That’s awesome.

HOWEVER.

The only signs spelling out the complete policy were in the badge registration area. There weren’t any in the dealer’s room area that I or any of the people that attended the Women in Gaming panel had spotted. And I didn’t see any outside of the main convention center, either.

And that’s a problem! If nothing else, there needs to be at least some basic “cosplay is not consent” posters in the dealers’ room, because that’s where a whole lot of cosplay is happening.

The other problem is that a whole lot of people just don’t need to go to the badge registration area. Because I was running through Games on Demand, I picked up my badge from the GoD staff without ever having to go through the badge line. And for the most part, trips to the dealers’ room to acquire specific items were the only trips that I made into the convention center itself. The one panel I was able to go to (all the others overlapped with my GM slots! Curses!) was in the Crowne Plaza – all of which were areas that didn’t have any sort of signage to raise awareness of this policy.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of people don’t attend the first day of the convention, or don’t manage to be awake in time to hit the dealers room in time for the opening ceremonies, or aren’t able to stand close enough to hear what everyone else is saying.

This is something that is important. If you want to change the social norms around toxic and harassing behavior at conventions, you have to change expectations and raise awareness, and signage is an important part of that. GenCon is just too big an event to do it in a more individualized way.

And that’s all I have to say about that