Handling difficult material as a GM: part 2

A few months ago, the ever-fantastic Kate Bullock (who also has a Patreon for her blog that you should check out) said that she wanted to see someone write about this question: “How do I, as a person of privilege, include problematic content in my games safely and inclusively?”

And that is an excellent question! A really big, excellent question! So big that I ended up writing an entire post about player safety in regard to tabletop games and LARPs just to lay the groundwork for this post – because everything that I want to say about how to include problematic content responsibly hinges first on the concept of safety.

So. Let’s take it as a given that you read all of my previous post (if you haven’t, now would be a good time to do so), and move on.

Advice for people making games

I only have one point to make here, but it’s a biggie:

Talk to the people you’re writing about

Because I don’t like repeating myself, I’m going to quote myself from this old-but-still-totally-relevant series I wrote about how to write inclusive settings:

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

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

If you are writing about people who don’t look like you (and you should be, at least sometimes, because only ever writing about people who look like you is boring as shit), you need to talk to the people whose stories you are going to tell. So if you’re writing a game about women and you’re a man, you need to talk to women. If you’re writing a game about mental illness, but are not yourself mentally ill, you’re going to need consultation from people who do have mental health issues. And if you’re writing a game set in a foreign country that you are not from and are not connected to (ie you’re writing a game set in India and are a white kid from Chicago, to use a hypothetical example), you need to talk to people from that background – after you do your research.

Because that’s the other thing to remember. If you are seeking someone out, you need to remember that they are the ones doing you the favor. Because no person from a marginalized group is OBLIGATED to educate people from outside that group. That’s what the internet is for. Do NOT go to someone and expect them to do all the heavy lifting with regard to teaching you about their culture just so you can do them the “favor” of writing a game about that culture, because that is bad allying. Instead, do your homework. Don’t write your first draft before you’ve done good, solid research. Once a draft is done, highlight areas of possible concern, and only then approach someone about getting an opinion – because handing someone several thousand words and asking for an opinion without any sort of focusing questions is not a good way to earn goodwill.

Lastly, when approaching people, remember that their time is important – you wouldn’t think it wasn’t important if you didn’t want their opinion, after all – and be prepared to offer some kind of compensation in return for their time. If it’s a friend or acquaintance, you can feel free to get creative – “hey, do you think you’d mind taking a look at a draft of a game I’m working on? I’m concerned about [things x, y, and z]. I’d be willing to trade babysitting so you and your partner could have a night out” is something that I would probably not say no to!

However, if no one in your immediate circle of contacts has the background that you need, consider that you may have to pay someone real actual money. Because nothing will get me to delete your email faster than sending me content unsolicited and expecting me to give you an opinion on it. And yeah, it can be scary pouring money – even a little money – into an early game draft when you don’t know what will come of it, and maybe that can be a reminder of why it’s so important to cultivate a social network of diverse, non-homogeneous designers.

That’s not to say that paying people to consult on a game draft can’t have benefits! being prepared to put your money where your mouth is is a great way of making a first impression, and if you are open and receptive to the conversation that results, the chances are pretty good that the consultant will go to bat for you later when it comes to helping promote the finished product.

Advice for people running tabletop games

Tell your players upfront if there are elements of the game that are problematic

Don’t be cute and hide things from your players to give them a more “intense” experience, because that’s a dick move. Tell them up front.

For convention games, this starts with putting a small disclaimer in the description of your game. Ie “this game deals with issues surrounding sexual violence” or “this game deals with bodily autonomy” or “this game deals with toxic masculinity”. When players are looking over the list of games, trying to decide which game they want to play in during a given time slot, that is shit they need to know. However, by the same token, don’t assume that they actually read the description. Maybe there was a scheduling mixup, or maybe a friend dragged them into the game at the last minute. Maybe the game they were scheduled to play got canceled and the organizers just tried to find them something to replace it. Which means you’ll also need to tell the players when they sit down what they’re getting in for.

Providing content warnings about problematic elements in your game isn’t “coddling” your players, or “insulating them from reality”. Providing content warnings lets people prepare themselves so that when the problematic content comes up, it isn’t a horrible surprise.

Of course, providing content warnings means that you need to have enough self-awareness to be aware of the shortcomings of a thing you love; just because you love a game doesn’t mean that it’s good for someone else. Be open about the pitfalls of the game you’re running without apologizing for it or being ashamed of it, and let your players make the decision that is best for them. Speaking from personal experience, a lot of the time I’m a lot more willing to engage with problematic content that gets close to uncomfortable areas for me when it’s labeled as such and disclosed up front, because that shows respect and concern on the part of the GM or facilitator.

Lastly, a lot of LARPs can have big twists or reveals. But if you’re running a LARP with such a twist, it’s still important to find a way to disclose potentially painful themes upfront and let people opt out. Because having triggering content sprung on you as a surprise is doubly awful in a LARP.

But – don’t put up with problematic behavior at the table

It’s important to note that some players will see content warnings as an invitation to be as “dark” and “edgy” as they can, or to treat the problematic content as a joke. If you have a player that is making light of what is meant to be a serious issue, X-card it hard and fast. And if they keep doing it, call them on it, and kick them out if you need to.

It feels shitty, but a bad player can be just as harmful as an irresponsible GM.

Don’t just replicate injustice. Be critical of it.

To use an example that drives me nuts, I hear lots of people say that Game of Thrones is feminist because it has lots of strong female characters. Which. No.

First, simply having strong female characters DOES NOT make something automatically feminist. But even more importantly, just replicating injustice is not the same thing as actually criticizing injustice. Without some sort of change that turns the situation on its head, all that you’re doing is reinforcing toxic social norms that already exist. To return to Game of Thrones, when you have entire plot threads that center on things like rape, sexual exploitation, and white saviors saving the awful brown people from their barbaric culture without any hint of irony or even the thinnest attempt at trope inversion, that is not criticism. That is mindless replication.

An example of a game which does do this well is Dogs in the Vineyard – a game about Mormon gunslinger teenagers in the Old West. You could play it as a mostly vanilla Western if you wanted, but the thing that makes Dogs special is the fact that the text covers gender and racial divisions in Faithful society and how they can lead to injustice – which is why it’s easy to use Dogs to create game content that focuses on social issues.

One of the best bits of GMing I’ve ever done was when I wrote a Dogs town where the heresy was literally feminism. (More specifically, there was a heretical cult of women who believed that women were people who got to do things other than have babies.) I had the cult leader take that feminism to monstrous extremes and left it to the players to decide how the hell they were going to sort everything out, which leads right into:

Related: If you’re going to engage in social commentary via moral dilemma, make it an open ended dilemma

IF you are engaging in social commentary by way of moral dilemma, DO NOT pre-play by deciding which option is the “right” option, because then it’s not a dilemma anymore. What you have is just high-handed preaching, which is boring as shit at best and condescending and insulting at worst. Putting the choice in their hands makes it engaging and thought provoking!

Present a moral dilemma and be prepared for what happens if: 1) your players choose side A 2) your players choose side B or 3) your players try to walk a middle ground, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Advice for people running LARPs

A lot of what I’ve said above applies to running LARPs too. But as facilitating LARPs is a very different beast from GMing tabletop, there are a few specific points to be made. Most importantly,

Remember: victimizers often need as much aftercare as victims, but they might not feel they have permission to say so

Some LARPs, especially Nordic LARPs, cast people in roles that are explicitly roles where they are villains, oppressors, or victimizers – and those can be really hard and emotionally challenging roles to play! This is especially true when what happens in play ends up mirroring a form of oppression that the player of an oppressor character has themselved experience. Often, this can be just as traumatic as playing a character who is themselves the victim.

In writing about my experience of playing Autonomy, the LARP that I wrote about teaching men to behave like women, women to behave like men, and then creating a situation where women punish men for their gender for forty minutes, I described it this way:

actually playing the game was agonizing. Because here I was, replicating an experience that has literally made me sick in the past, and I was doing it on purpose.

The instant the game was over and we sat down for the debrief, the very first thing I did was to cross my arms and ankles as I all but folded in on myself, going from masculine to feminine body language in an instant, and the very first words out of my mouth were a plaintive “I’m sorry”.

Because I should have known! I should have known that being “men” wouldn’t be “better”, because hurting someone the way that you’ve been hurt just because you can is a terrible feeling.

So it’s important to make it clear that players of villain characters will get just as much support and care as players of victim characters. It’s probably best just to state this as a ground rule of the debrief.

During debriefs, make sure everyone gets to talk, and that no one has their experience invalidated by someone else

The group of people that I LARP with have standardized how they run debriefs somewhat to include the following:

  1. Everyone gets up to 3 minutes to talk about how they felt during the game and how they are feeling now; only individual statements, no conversations or responses
  2. People can’t use their 3 minutes to invalidate or argue with someone else’s experience
  3. General conversation happens only after everyone has had a chance to speak, and is highly structured. The moderator enforces turn taking and keeps one person or one group of people (men[1]) from taking over the conversation

Number 2 is more important than you’d think! The worst debrief experience I ever had was after a LARP in which themes of sexism were very prevalent. During the LARP, there was a moment in which two men – one of whom was physically much larger than me – stood over me and shouted at me until I stopped talking. So when it was my 3 minutes, I talked about how threatened I felt, and about how having masculinity intentionally performed at me is something I find very anxiety provoking.

When it was another male player’s turn to talk (this was not one of the two men who had done the shouting), he said that masculinity hadn’t been performed, gender had never been a part of that situation. Meaning, by extension, that my feelings and everything I talked about were all in my head. That they weren’t real.

I. WAS. FURIOUS. I ended up leaving the debrief – the first and only time I have ever done so.

Thankfully, the facilitator was receptive when I told him how I was doing afterward. And conversation with him and his partner, who is the owner of the space and organizes the games that we play there, led to including rule #2 as a default, to avoid future repeats.

If shit gets real, make yourself available for conversation after

Something that I have seen done by facilitators, and something I have done myself, is as simple as handing out cards with your contact info if one of your players feels like they need help processing the experience later, after they have left the game space. That’s not to say that it’s required, but if you feel comfortable at least handing out an email address, it’s something worth considering.

Some of the best, most educational conversations I’ve had – the ones that have opened my eyes to other perspectives or helped me see things in a radically new light – were conversations that happened well after a particular game had ended.

I don’t know how to end this but I think I’ve said enough.

If you made it this far, congratulations. I promise to get back to stuff with lots more pictures after this.

In the mean time, have a kitten in a pocket:

[1] If you feel like you need to argue this point with me, just. Don’t. I will throw science at you and you will lose

Handling difficult material as GM or facilitator: Part 1

Before I get started, a note about my previous post:

Some asshat on the internet[1] wrote a screed about my last post calling me human feces and an actual lizard person. Why? Because I had the nerve to blog about a game that I’m making, with a MALE co-designer, btw, that has feminist themes. And somehow me and my SJWness and my making games about feminism is DESTROYING GAMING and will KILL D&D FOREVER.

Which, look internet MRA gamerbros. Calm your testes, okay? Literally no one is forcing you to think about, buy, or play my game. The existence of my game doesn’t THREATEN ALL OF D&D. Jesus. Calm down, okay? I wish I was that awesome, but I’m not.

calm-your-testes

Also, worth noting that a good half of his screed (when he wasn’t talking about what a pox I am on gaming) was devoted to bitching about how I CAN’T WRITE A GAME ABOUT TOXIC MASCULINITY BECAUSE I’M NOT A MAN. Which, you know, conveniently ignores the fact that I specifically gave credit to my male co-designer (the eminently fantastic Andrew Medeiros) at the end of the first paragraph. Whoops.

ANYWAY. Moving on.

Handling difficult material in game spaces you are responsible for

I write a lot here about how to be a responsible publisher, in terms of creating diverse and inclusive game content that doesn’t fuck up with regards to reductive stereotypes. I also write a fair bit about how to be a good ally, by way of common ally traps and how to avoid them. But a few months ago, a friend pointed out that she wanted to read about how to be a responsible GM – especially when running games for players with marginalizations that she doesn’t share. Between GenCon and being a full time student, I haven’t had as much attention to devote to blogging as I would have liked. But now that I find myself with a bit of breathing room, it’s a good time to look at the issue of safer gaming spaces and how to facilitate those spaces even when you’re handling difficult, intense, or potentially problematic content.

This post expanded a bit beyond what I was expecting, so today focuses more on safety tools and the space itself. Next time I’ll get into a bit more nitty gritty detail about techniques for GMs.

Also, I wasn’t able to work them in to the outline of this post, but Meguey Baker has written pretty extensively about two cultures of safety in play called I Will Not Abandon You and Nobody Gets Hurt. Most of the discussions around this are buried on forums like Story-Games and happened a long time ago, but I would be remiss in not acknowledging Meg’s work, as well as the work of others, in starting this conversation in the first place.

First: Always use safety tools

The three safety tools that I always, always, always use when running games are:

I don’t run games without them anymore; even if a LARP doesn’t mention Cut/Break or The Door is Always Open in the facilitator instructions, I still always introduce it to the players as part of the rules, because that’s how strongly I feel about it.

However, just having safety tools doesn’t actually solve anything. The use of safety tools at the table in convention spaces is getting to be pretty common; at GenCon we had printed X-Cards at every table, the files for which we actually got from Kate Bullock who runs Breakout Con. And every LARP that I’ve ever played at a convention has included Cut/Brake and The Door Is Always Open as part of the instructions on how to play.

And yet, despite the increasing prevalence of safety tools, we haven’t actually solved the issue of player safety. Simply putting a safety tool on the table (either literal or metaphorical) and telling people how it works IS NOT ENOUGH to get someone to use that tool when they need it. Because…

Second: People need to feel they have permission to USE safety tools

One thing I’ve noticed is that how I approach safety tools in games tends to vary widely based on who I’m playing with. For instance, in convention games, I’m far less likely to use safety tools, even when I’m not having a great time or am feeling uncomfortable with content that is coming up. I’ve written previously about an experience that I had running Zombie Cinema at GenCon 2014 for a brunch of bros who made sexism a running joke in the game. And despite introducing the X-Card during the game introduction, and despite that the sexist jokes were really bothering me, I didn’t say anything.

Similarly, also at GenCon in 2014, I played in an Apocalypse World longcon than ran all three nights of the convention. And it was an amazing game, but there was a moment in particular that stood out for me as deeply, starkly uncomfortable. There was this weird psychic contagion, and at one point one of the players failed a roll against an NPC. The GM had made it clear that if this happened, the psychic contagion was going to take control, and after the roll he gave the player a choice: either you’ll have to kill her or have sex with her. And I was really not okay. Because after a previous bad experience at GenCon, even implied possible sexual violence in a roleplaying game in a convention space was something that got close to some ugly emotional scars. But I let it go to see what the player would do, and he chose to kill the NPC, and play moved on and I didn’t end up using the X-Card.

Compare this with my use of the X-Card in campaigns with my local gaming group – the one I’ve been playing with for almost two years now, and you get a very different picture. During a campaign of Urban Shadows, I perma-X-Carded a friend’s demon clown character, who transformed into demon form by ripping off their skin and generally doing a lot of body horror shit. I told that friend they could mime their actions or do sound effects, but not both[2]. Or another time I actually X-carded how a scene had played out because I was having a really rough time with my anxiety and needed the session to end on a positive note.

Both of those instances are “smaller” uses of the X-Card – things that made me feel more comfortable but weren’t things that affected my overall fun or ability to feel emotionally safe. I could have managed just fine with the demon clown descriptions by plugging my ears – it wasn’t something that would ruin my fun completely. Similarly, X-carding how a scene wrapped up at the end of a session wasn’t something I needed to feel safe. But in both instances, I knew that my friends would understand that these were things that would make me feel more comfortable.

The difference between how I approach the X-Card in home games versus how I have approached it at conventions comes down to having a pre-existing relationship and having trust in the GM and the other players. Often, the situations where people need safety tools are not the situations where they feel they have that relationship with someone. When I run a tabletop campaign, I know my players. I know that I can narrate X in a way that will skeeve out player Y, but I also mostly know where to stop.

But I mostly don’t have that kind of relationship with players at con games. So when I introduce safety tools, I do more than explain how it works. I explain why it’s there.

For example. One of my favorite games to run at conventions if I have to do a two-hour slot is The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. The Shab al-Hiri Roach is a game of dark comedy in which you play bad people doing bad things, and transplanting that game into Hogwarts – a setting which canonically includes children, has the potential to cause some bad times. So when I’m introducing the game to folks, my X-Card speech looks a little something like this:

“Because Hogwarts is a setting which canonically includes children, I want to emphasize that we’ll be playing with the X-Card firmly in place. The X-Card is a safety tool that anyone can lift, point to, or tap whenever content comes up that makes them uncomfortable or they’d rather not see, and we’ll edit out that content without any judgement or recrimination. I’ll say right now that I’ll X-Card anything that involves harming children, but the X-Card can be used for anything – big or small.

I say all this not to be a downer, because The X-Card is actually a really important tool to help us have fun. When you’re playing a gonzo silly game at a convention, there’s no way you can know everything that makes the other players uncomfortable. So the X-Card is our safety net, in case something comes up, so that we can put our energy into playing and having a good time and not worrying about something that might come up and ruin our fun.”

Similarly, I was really glad when I ran a session of Unheroes when a player asked during setup if anyone had an issue with him playing very intensely, because he liked high-intensity, high-bleed experiences. I was able to say something like, “that’s a great question! I’m glad to hear you like to play that way but are aware that it might cause some people some issues. Here are some tools we’ll be using to help manage those issues, so you can feel comfortable playing intensely and other people have the tools they need if they start to feel uncomfortable. That way we’ll all be able to have fun together.”

So to break it down, I use language to sell why it’s good to have, if possible I include an example of content that I would use a safety tool for, and I talk about why everyone benefits from the use of safety tools in gaming spaces.

BUT. Even then it’s important not to forget that…

 

Third: The existence of safety tools don’t negate the need to keep an eye out for player safety

In the debrief after the Apocalypse World longcon where that really uncomfortable moment of “kill her or have sex with her” had happened, I talked about how uncomfortable that had been for me and that I had been really close to not being okay. And the GM nodded and said, yeah, I could tell. And I was so, so grateful that he’d picked up on it! Just as I was then really upset with the person who spoke up in response and said that if I hadn’t been okay, it would have been my fault for not using the X-Card.

And that was such a completely bullshit response that I couldn’t even. Because sometimes the situations making people feel unsafe are rooted in real, actual trauma, and one of the responses to trauma that is pretty fucking common is for people to freeze up or shut down. For me, my experience of being sexually assaulted at GenCon made the possibility of narrative sexual violence in a convention space feel very threatening. And luckily, in this instance, the triggering element in the game was something I could see coming, so I could prepare to X-Card it if it got too close. But sometimes triggers come at you hard and sideways, too fast for you to react, and you can find yourself shutting down and unable to use the very tool to get you out of the situation.

Which is why it is SO IMPORTANT as a GM to keep an eye out for this. And I promise you, you’re already better at this than you think.

As GMs/Facilitators, part of learning our craft is learning to recognize when your players are having fun. If you’ve been GMing for any length of time, you know the difference between a good con game and a bad one. When someone asks how your game just went, it’s the difference between “Eh, it was a B- game. Two players really loved it, but the third player really wasn’t feeling it” and “it was totally great! Everyone was super into it! The energy was high and we all had a great time!”

When a player switches from “having fun” to “not”, you should always check in – especially if that transition is sudden or abrupt. The reason could be entirely mundane – their blood sugar could have bottomed out, or they could have a headache coming on, or they might feel they’re not getting enough spotlight. But it could be something bigger.

You don’t need to make a big deal of it. Something as simple as “hey, you got kinda quiet, everything okay?” between scenes can make all the difference.

And that is where I stop for today

All of this was laying the ground work for the question I actually wanted to answer, which is – how do I include problematic content safely and inclusively? So we’ll get that next time.

However, because I don’t want “calm your testes” to be the preview image, have a picture of a baby rabbit:

[1] I won’t provide links, but his title image was a bald eagle in front of an American Flag, and his bio describes himself as a culture warrior. The self-satire, it hurts!

[2] They reminded me recently that I ALSO banned them from describing their actions while they acted them out, and I was like, “what really? I don’t remember that”. And then they started miming pulling the flesh off their face while also describing it until I was like “NOPE NOPE NOW I REMEMBER OKAY STOP YES I SAID THAT”.

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.

Life is Strange Chapters 4 & 5: The Villain is Patriarchy [TW]

Okay, folks. So before I start, this post is CHOCK FULL of spoilers for Life is Strange. Episode 5, the final episode, has been out since last October, so I figured that now would be a good time to finish playing and write about the experience, but if you haven’t finished Life is Strange yet, or if you haven’t played it but intend to, I’m going to emphatically recommend not reading this until after you’ve played it. Normally I’m pretty spoiler-agnostic, but the twist at the end of Chapter 4 is one of the most genuinely surprising and unsettling twists I’ve encountered in a game and I would really hate to ruin that for anyone invested in playing.

Also, it’s important to note that this post comes with a trigger warning for descriptions of unsettling depictions of gendered violence, harassment, and graphic rape metaphors.

So, now that that’s been said…

Here there are only spoilers for Chapters 1-3:

I’ve written about Life is Strange previously; last year I binged Chapters 1-3 in rapid succession and wrote about the experience here. What drew me into the series was the complex portrayal of a wide variety of female characters – all of whom have complex motivations and characterizations, and the explicit centering of women’s stories.

What I came to appreciate after playing the first three chapters, however, was how the writers very purposefully led the audience through a narrative that builds a very clear picture of the lived emotional reality of being a woman who has to live in a patriarchal society and the awful choices that can happen as a result. Further, while a lot of media can include depictions of online harassment or sexual violence in the name of being “topical” or “edgy”, the developers at DONTNOD impressively manage to make both harassment and sexual violence central plot points in such a way that doesn’t cheapen the narrative or demean the characters who suffer from this violence. The gendered nature of both the harassment and the sexual violence is made very clear, and while the player is given a choice in how to respond when stories of violence are recounted, choosing to respond in ways that blame the victim results in having those responses thrown back at you in ways that highlight the injustice and horror of blaming women for their own victimization.

Importantly, as the player begins to uncover more detail about the strange and terrible things happening at Blackwell, a situation is set up where all of the possible villains are men with status and power. At the end of Chapter 3, Max finds herself in an office with all of them as she is being pressured to point fingers and assign blame.

And each of the men is, in his own way, a different toxic manifestation of internalized male privilege:

  • David Madsen, the chief of Blackwell security, is the male representative of authority who takes it upon himself to govern the women around him in the name of law and order.
  • Nathan Prescott is the platonic ideal of violent toxic masculinity, who threatens violence freely against women who get in his way and who serially drugs and sexually victimizes women without ever showing remorse for his actions.
  • Principal Wells is the institutional authority who recognizes Nathan for the violent sociopath he is, and yet continues to cover up his actions to protect both the institution he serves and to materially benefit himself and his personal finances, allowing Nathan free reign to continue victimizing women as he sees fit.
  • And Mark Jefferson, the enlightened mentor figure who has so many positive things to say about encouraging women to step forward and take risks, is the disappointing ally – the man who you thought Got It until he revealed the extent of his internalized misogyny by blaming Kate Marsh for what happened to her and escalating an already untenable situation.

All of this is left implicit, however, in the first three chapters. In Chapter 4, however…

Commence spoilers for Chapters 4 and 5!

Chapter 4 is when the gloves come off, when the developers make it explicitly clear that HEY – IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, THE VILLAIN IS PATRIARCHY.

First, there is Nathan. If you choose to blame Nathan for what happened to Kate Marsh, he continues to escalate his sexist abuse – which began as just calling Max things like “dyke” and “bitch”, but graduates to “feminazi” in Chapter 4 – a slur that you hear a few times from this point on. Perhaps the most chilling of which is when you receive an “anonymous” text from what you already know to be Nathan’s phone saying only “feminazis will be exterminated”.

Chapter 4 is also when Nathan is revealed for the entitled, misogynistic monster that he is – an unapologetic sexual predator who is a danger to any woman around him. Through Max and Chloe’s investigation, it becomes clear that Nathan is, if not a serial rapist, then definitely someone who has serially sexually assaulted women – there is the video of him with a drugged Kate Marsh, in which he encourages people to take advantage of someone too drugged to consent to sexual activity. There is also Chloe’s story of Nathan’s attempt to drug her with similar intent. Both of these events actually occur after Nathan killed and secretly buried Rachel Amber, resulting in her disappearance two months before the events of the game take place.

[Sidebar: Relative to Nathan, for all the fact that he is an unstable, paranoid, borderline psychotic sexual predator, I actually really appreciate what happens if you attempt to warn Victoria to stay away from Nathan during the Vortex Club party in Chapter 4. Victoria reacts with disbelief and anger, accusing Max of saying that Nathan is dangerous out of jealousy or other personal motivations. She defends Nathan as being her best friend, and that she couldn’t possibly believe that he could be both her best friend and a predator to be avoided.

vicky

Which. Oof. This was such a powerful and true-to-life portrayal of conversations that actually happen – the danger that keeps women from attempting to warn other women about “missing stairs“, because there is always the risk that your warnings will not only not be received, but that you will be punished socially for it.]

But Nathan, as it turns out isn’t the real villain after all. The villain behind Rachel Amber’s disappearance, the drugging of Kate Marsh, and the whole sordid mess going on at Blackwell turns out not to be David Madsen – who has been established up to this point as a creepy, borderline domestic-abusing, teenage-fetishizing weirdo, or Principal Wells – who has explicitly used his institutional authority to protect a sexual predator. In what is one of the most genuinely shocking and upsetting twists I have ever encountered in a video game, it turns out to be Mr. Jefferson – the trusted authority and mentor figure who up until the reveal at the end of Chapter 4 has been an entirely sympathetic character.

[TW: If you want to skip discussion of rape metaphor, skip to where I tag the end of the trigger warning]

The reveal of Mr. Jefferson at the end of Chapter 4 is harrowing, but the opening of Chapter 5 takes that horror to an entirely new level when Max wakes up in a secret bunker that she discovers with Chloe in Chapter 4, but had assumed to be Nathan’s, as it is on old property belonging to Nathan’s family. Jefferson has drugged Max, just as he did with Kate, so that he can photograph her while unconscious – without that inconvenient free will and personhood that would only screw up his photographs.

Jefferson_uses_Max_for_his_photography

The dialogue that he gives while photographing Max, as he enthuses about how pure, beautiful, and “innocent” she is in her unconscious/semiconscious state, is chilling, as is the rage that he shows when Max – who is groggy as she wakes up from the drugs – attempts to move and “ruins” his shots. It is at this point that Mark Jefferson becomes the literal embodiment of patriarchy.

The way that he crouches over Max as he photographs her, at times even straddling her for the sake of a shot… Let’s just say that obvious rape metaphor is obvious. The camera angles that the developer chooses, the ways in which Jefferson defines the space around Max and physically moves her in the space, the things that he says as he is waxing rhapsodic about her special qualities — it a horrifying violation.

The level of remove that the writers provide by writing the scene as “obvious rape metaphor is obvious”, however, is deftly done in that it evokes feelings of terror and threat without being a portrayal that would be triggering for most survivors with trauma surrounding real-life assault. But critically, it also provides an additional layer of critical commentary about the attitudes about women that make Jefferson’s monstrous behavior possible.

[/Trigger warning]

Just to leave some space after the next session, have a picture of a baby rabbit in a coffee mug.

Mark Jefferson LITERALLY objectifies women for the purposes of subjecting them to his male gaze. By drugging women he finds sexually appealing, he turns them into objects incapable of asserting their agency or desires, so that he can photograph them the way that HE WANTS TO SEE THEM.

The level of meta-narrative happening is deafening, even as it manages to do what I have literally never seen any other video game do – tell a story about sexual violence against women in ways that centers the survivor of that violence, without being done in such a way that it comes across as being done for easy “shock” value or to make the story “edgy”.

That, in and of itself, is an impressive achievement in game writing. As is the scene where David rescues Max from Jefferson, or rather, assists Max in rescuing herself, and the conversation that follows – in which it becomes clear that David has been trying to be an ally all along, although he has been going about it in the dumbest, most wrong-headed fashion possible. And he acknowledges his failings without flinching from the fact that he failed, and that he acted in ways that were inappropriate, and would need to try make amends for his behavior.

But the nail in the coffin, the final layer of “HEY, BTW, THE VILLAIN IS TOTES PATRIARCHY” is the nightmare level where all of Max’s cumulative changes warp reality and trap her in a combination of alternate dimensions that she has to find her way out of. As reality continues falling apart around her, Max finds herself trapped in a maze in which all of the major male characters become villains – monsters that she has to hide from in order to survive. That in itself is unnerving, but the things that the men shout out as they patrol, looking for Max, hammers home the gendered nature of the threat they represent.

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Nathan hurls gendered insults like “feminazi” and promises violence when he finds Max. Principal Wells makes threats about how he will use his power to punish Max, blaming her for everything that has happened. David similarly hurls insults and promises retribution. And Jefferson maintains the level of imminent threat by trying to convince her of the merits of his artistic vision, even as he says some truly vile things like, “Max, Rachel not only gave great headshots, she gave great head”. Just as frightening, however, is the fact that men who are actual allies also stalk the maze. Frank – who can become either an ally or an enemy in Chapter 4 (I made him an ally), is there – blaming Max for what happened to Rachel and promising retribution. Samuel, who is only ever gentle and kind, is there too. And Warren, who is only ever sweet and earnest and eager to help Max stand up to Nathan, alternately pleads for and demands Max’s attention.

In the end, Max escapes and what leads her back to reality and sanity are her memories of Chloe and the moments of real happiness and female companionship that they’ve shared in the last week – which is what makes the final choice at the end so agonizing. But for all that I sobbed my way through the ending after choosing to sacrifice Chloe, that wasn’t the part that has been sticking with me since finishing the game.

I keep finding myself on the power and resonance of the nightmare maze, because I have never played a game that so accurately reflected the experiences that I have had since starting my blog that have led to me being afraid of men as a class of human being. Despite the fact that some of my closest, deepest, most intimate ties are with men, spaces that are heavily marked as male are spaces that I am not able to feel safe in. And this game, THIS FUCKING GAME, made by (from what I have been able to gather) a team of mostly-white-dudes, is the first time in my whole goddamn life that I have seen a game FUCKING NAIL my emotional truth.

Which, you know, given that I’ve been playing video games since I was about 6, it’s about fucking time.

Revising art for Undying: A conversation with Paul and Shannon Riddle [NSFW ART]

The Conversation

[Note: Artwork and quoted correspondence shared with permission of Paul and Shannon Riddle]

Last year, I did a series of numbers posts in which I analyzed the art in the three core books of the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I got a lot of positive responses, but my favorite was actually from Paul Riddle – the author and designer of Undying, a diceless roleplaying game about vampires which had raised more than $31,000 on KickStarter approximately a month before I posted my series about D&D:

I read through your three write-ups analyzing the art of D&D 5 and I applied your methodology to the art for Undying, the vampire game that I am in the process of publishing. As a result, I discovered a strong bias that I didn’t intend for, but clearly did nothing to solve. I’d like to get the art on the right track by increasing the presence of women in the art and to make improvements to the current depiction of women to remedy the latent problems. Shannon and I went over my findings this morning and I’d like to share them with you and get your feedback. Is that something you’d be interested in doing?

Since I was pretty excited to receive Paul’s message, I responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. The process that I use to do my numbers posts is pretty laborious, and while I’ve seen a good number of friends who are publishers express support and appreciate of the work that I do in numerical analyses of game art in finished books, this was the first time that anyone had ever applied my methods to examining art in progress in a game that was still in the publication stages!

I was even more impressed and delighted when what Paul actually sent me was a full on report, with graphs, charts, and analytical commentary, as well as all of the completed pieces of art that had been done so far. I mean, seriously, here’s one of the first charts from the report:

 

Undying-chart

 

In the end, the numbers brought forward the conclusion that the art showed a clear gender bias (albeit a much smaller one than is typical in most roleplaying games!). Again, from Paul’s own report:

Conclusions While there is a clear bias toward men and male monsters in the artwork by the numbers, this bias could be reduced by adding more illustrations featuring women. To preserve the proportionality of fully clad to not fully clad women relative to men, not more than ¼ of these new illustrations should feature scantily clad or nude women, as defined above.

Overall, it was an impressively thorough analysis. My favorite aspect was that Paul noted where he and Shannon had disagreed on something; It’s a small detail, but it’s the small things that add up.

After looking through the report and all of the art that Paul and Shannon had forwarded, I agreed with his conclusion, although I did add a few cautionary caveats:

I would tend to agree with your conclusions that additional pieces of art centered on female characters would be the best way to go about resolving the imbalance – assuming that it’s something that you can make work with your remaining budget. If your budget won’t stretch far enough for more than a few additional pieces, I’d suggest that adding images of monstrous female characters would give the most bang for your buck – although I’d also stress that any monstrous female characters illustrated should be as non-sexualized as possible. If you search for “corpse boobs” on my blog, you’ll come up with lots and lots of reasons why sexualized female monsters get really awful really fast.

Thank you so much for taking this so much to heart – it’s obvious that you put a lot of work in examining what had already been done for your game and didn’t flinch from the results, which honestly is super rare and super encouraging. Overall, the art that you have for Undying is already comparatively great, so seeing that you are taking this so seriously makes me really happy.

We bounced emails back and forth during the revision process. And while I don’t want to spoil all of the art, because seriously Undying is a really interesting looking game and you should go check it out once it’s been released, I wanted to highlight a few particular pieces and the conversation that happened around them as an example of Doing It Right with regards to publishing and art direction.

 (And to be clear, this isn’t to say that Doing It Right = Doing What I Say, or Agreeing With Me Always. What I mean is that Doing It Right = always being willing to look for where you failed and how (because you did, somewhere), and then actually do something about it instead of handwaving and saying “we’ll do better next time”.)

Specific Examples

Example the first: Step into my parlor…
One of the pieces that jumped out to me the most in the original batch of artwork that Paul sent with his first report is the following piece; overall it’s a solid piece. It reminds me a lot of the Vicky Nelson urban fantasy series by Tanya Huff, which features as its protagonist a hard-nosed private eye who dabbles in the supernatural while simultaneously having zero fucks.
However, there’s also the issue that in the background, there’s a Randomly Naked Woman who is standing in a doorway while naked out in the open because… reasons? Now, to be fair, this was also one of the things that Paul called out in his initial report and identified as something that needed to change before I even offered any input. And the revision, while small, really makes a big difference:
Which just goes to show that often, small tweaks can help take a piece of art from “problematic” to “compelling and awesome”. Instead of Random Naked Woman prompting all sorts of questions about “why the fuck is she standing naked in her doorway, wtf, they are just out on the street”, the focus shifts to the woman in the foreground, which is good because she’s way more interesting!
Example the second: consensual bitey sexytimes versus nonconsensual corpse-biting
This (admittedly incredibly NSFW) piece is a perfect example of accidental terrible implications. In the original version, on the left, it was intended that what was to be depicted was some fun bitey sexytimes. However, because the piece is in black and white, the blood trail coming down her neck and across her collarbone as well as the hair draped across her neck can create the illusion that she is, in fact, dead and that the vampire is snacking on a sexy corpse whose throat has been slit.
Given that sexualizing female corpses is a thing that happens with disturbing frequency in game artnot including sexy female corpses is a thing that really most publishers should be aiming for.
Thankfully, this was something that Paul was aware of and was proactive in saying needed to change. I did make some additional commentary that the revised version might need further attention to ensure that the bitey sexytimes being depicted are clearly consensual sexytimes. (Because honestly, vampires in roleplaying games tend to come off as pretty rapey a lot, and murder-rape-vampires are also not uncommon, which is gross.) However, in the end the simple changes that Paul outlined in his notes make all the difference.
Vampires-naked
Hot. And now no possibility of reading as murder-rape. Hooray!
Example 3: Filling in the gaps with some monstrous ladies
The last piece I’ll point to as an example is one of the new pieces that was commissioned in response to the initial report that Paul did. As I’d observed, while there were monstrous nonsexy (ie non-naked) male characters, there weren’t any similarly nonsexy monstrous female characters. So that was something that Paul specifically asked for when he was commissioning a second round of images to fill in the gaps as discussed. And as it turns out, this piece is actually one of my favorites out of all of the art that Paul has shared with me!
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Honestly, this is such a great piece. And it wouldn’t have existed at all if Paul hadn’t taken the initiative to take a hard look at his game’s art and to address the imbalances that were identified.
So many thanks to Paul and Shannon for being part of this conversation, and for allowing me to quote them. I’ll say that Vampire-specific roleplaying isn’t necessarily my roleplaying genre of choice (nevermind the fact that I’ve contributed to two separate Vampire books), but this is definitely a game that I’ll be keeping an eye on, and encouraging people to check out once it’s finished and released!

Wednesday Freebie: An interview with the creators of Lovecraftesque

Today’s post is an interview with Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, the creators of a game called Lovecraftesque that is currently KickStarting with (by the time you will probably read this) slightly less than seven days to go.
Lovecraftesque is, as the title might imply, a story game about telling stories in the Lovecraft style without adhering to the specific Cthulu mythos. What got me excited about the project is the fact that the creators were both committed to addressing the problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s work head-on in their game, with some very interesting stretch-goals that tackle the issues of race and mental health in Lovecraft’s stories in depth.
They’re currently at a bit more than 200% funding with some very exciting stretch goals in the works. So if what you read here interests, you, I’d definitely advise checking out the campaign, since it’s all gravy from here on out!
1. One of the things that jumped out at me right away is that you explicitly call out H.P. Lovecraft’s issues with race, and are getting Mo Holkar (who has done some really excellent writing about race in roleplaying games) to write about ways to tell stories that have the Lovecraft feel without the problematic racism. This is something that, honestly, I haven’t seen from many Cthulu mythos-inspired games. How much did these concerns affect the design of the game and planning for the KickStarter?

[B] We couldn’t have done a Lovecraftian game without addressing his racism and making a concerted effort to keep it out of our game.  We were really concerned (and we still are) to make sure our game isn’t extending his racism either explicitly or subtlely. But we are also really lucky – there is a huge community of people including Mo Holkar, Chris Chinn, yourself and many others who have been talking and writing about representations of race in RPGs for a long time.  There is a lot of help and resources in the RPG community in navigating this problem and I hope we’ve done the best job we can.

Part of the problem is that, while Lovecraft was bigoted in really obvious ways, he also weaved racist ideas into his stories in much more insidious ways – like, some of his stories look like they’re just about monsters from beneath the waves or ape-gods living in hidden jungles, but they’re actually not-particularly-subtle metaphors for his hatred. We read around the subject to understand it as much as possible.

[J] Design-wise, the game doesn’t copy Lovecraft, but instead attempts to help you to create a Lovecraft-like story, with your own terrors. Unless you use one of the pre-written scenarios available in the final version of the game, the players will be creating their own settings for Lovecraftesque at the table. So we focused on giving players the tools they need to deal with the racism in Lovecraft’s work.

We start with techniques for:

– Putting in place safety measures that allow players to effectively veto racist themes. There’s a step in the game setup where players can ban elements from the game, with explicit prompts in the text and on the play aids to consider banning in-character racism (and simplistic “going mad”-style depictions of mental illness), but also recommending the use of the X-Card technique by John Stavropoulos to catch the stuff that you couldn’t have anticipated at setup.

– Including a section discussing Lovecraft’s racism, how it might come up in the game, and how you can avoid it and diversify your game. We take the opportunity there to encourage groups to discuss these issues, because that’s our bottom line: if anyone in your group will be made uncomfortable by something, it’s best to avoid it, and you only find that out by talking about it. And of course, that’s now going to be supplemented by Mo’s essay which will go into this in more detail.

[B]  This is supported by art and flavour text that attempts to represent a diverse range of people, and which tries to avoid example text from Lovecraft which contains racist themes.

We mentioned all these themes in the Kickstarter, and of course, we wanted the sample art for the Kickstarter to exemplify our approach.

 
2. As someone who struggles with both anxiety and depression, I also really appreciated the fact that you plan on addressing how to respectfully portray mental illness. Was that something that was difficult to write about, and did it pose any challenges during playtesting?
 

[J] I guess just about everybody has either struggled with mental illness themselves or knows people who have. Lovecraftian stories are replete with simplistic, offensive depictions of mental illness, which much of the time boils down to portraying characters that have simply “gone mad”, an idea which doesn’t bear any relation to actual human psychology. But of course, the idea that the horrors of the mythos have a baleful effect on the human mind is a pretty core theme in Lovecraftian tales – you can’t completely abandon that and stay true to those stories.

We tried to analyse the ways that mental illness (or, more often, something that looks like mental illness but actually isn’t) might come up in a cosmic horror story. We found there’s actually a lot of ways to represent these themes without being offensive or perpetuating negative stereotypes. Writing about it was a huge challenge because there is far less discussion on mental health representation in RPGs than representations of race.  Shoshana Kessock’s original article is still the most comprehensive discussion piece on the themes – though there’s been a surge in discussion recently which we’ll be paying close attention to.

We both sometimes struggled to describe some of Lovecraft’s themes, such as the worldview-shattering effects of the mythos, or the presence of characters who have been deeply traumatised by an encounter with the horror. It was easy to unintentionally slip into casual ableist language in our game text and we have tried to correct that.

[B] You asked about playtesting. I don’t remember this being a particular problem in playtesting save that it was a new direction to ask people to directly think about using the word “mad” as a descriptor in a Lovecraft game.

There aren’t any sanity mechanics in the game which would push players in the direction of depicting mental illness. There were moments in playtesting when characters justifiably behaved with an element of temporary hysteria. I hope those didn’t come off as offensive and I certainly believe and hope they didn’t cross any lines. But my conclusion from all this is that, lacking an explicit mechanical push, most players will tend to default to playing their character as a person and not suddenly lurch into bizarre stereotypical behaviour.

 On the other hand we provide other routes for people to express their character’s mental discomfort. Because there’s just one central character – the Witness – we ask the players to provide their inner monologue; speaking out loud the Witness’s fears and rationalisations. Every time they do that, they’re effectively saying “fuck, that was scary/weird/what is happening here????”. So, instead of having their character giggle hysterically, you can just have them think appropriately terrified thoughts and/or vainly attempt to rationalise it all away. Again, this encouraging a style of play that portrays the character first, symptoms second.
3. I LOVE the preview pieces of art posted on the KickStarter. Do you have any strategies in place for your art direction to ensure that the art as a whole is diverse and inclusive?

[B] Thank you – we are so excited about the art for Lovecraftesque.

We knew going into this project we wanted to have a really diverse approach in the artwork.  Diversity in the text doesn’t mean much if it isn’t reflected in the art. A lesson we’ve learned from you and others!

When we looked for an artist we asked the RPG design community on G+ for recommendations, and especially encouraged people who were not white, cis, het, men to contact us.  Not that we didn’t want submissions from those men, but we figured we’d get plenty of responses from those guys anyway (and we did which was cool!) but we wanted to make sure we got plenty of other people being recommended as well.  We specifically put a note in saying we wanted to encourage submissions from people who might have imposter syndrome or otherwise assume they weren’t professional enough – because lack of confidence is often a problem for people and we wanted the widest possible pool of artists to choose from.

[J] We were really lucky to have Robin Scott as our artist. Robin was on exactly the same page as us when it came to making our art diverse – we were incredibly impressed with the diversity of models in her Urban Tarot work.

Right from the start, we said to her (and come to think of it, we said this to all the artists we shortlisted) that we wanted to portray diverse characters, from all genders, ethnic backgrounds, ages, sexualities, and levels of ability and disability, with a ceiling on the number of white dudes portrayed in the art. We also asked to avoid portraying all the white men as heroic action types with women and people of colour as passive victims or other stereotypes. Robin’s response was that she would have done that anyway, so it was great to know we were working together on this.

We didn’t stop there, of course. We created a list of concepts for images, and once we had whittled them down to the ones we wanted putting in the book, we went through character-by-character to identify what they ought to look like and make sure we were meeting those diversity objectives. So, while the art isn’t yet done (Robin has just started work on the art the Kickstarter is funding), we already know where we’re headed.

[B] I don’t think we can conclude this question without saying that we took a lot of inspiration and direction from your articles about game art. We have made our own (modest) contributions to promoting debate on this issue over the years, and we are committed to making sure that we practice what we preach to the best of our ability.

GenCon Follow-Up: Mike Mearls and D&D Consulting

Before Getting Started:

GenCon was, as always, an amazing experience and I have quite the list of topics that I want to write about – in some cases rather extensively. It may take me a bit to work through everything that I have to say; the things that I intend to cover include the economics of GenCon and how that privileges a certain class of attendee, the lack of diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider program and what that says about the future of the industry, and reflections on excellent games and conversations that gave me a lot of food for thought. (There are a few more things rattling around that I may yet shake loose as well.)

However, before I get to any of that, what I’m writing about today is something that I actually laid the groundwork for at last year’s GenCon, and which I’m very pleased to have gotten permission to talk about now that it’s over…

Recap: Last Year’s Lunch and an Exciting Offer

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will be aware of this, but due in part to a bunch of internet asshattery that happened in the run-up to last year’s GenCon, Mike Mearls invited Tracy Hurley and I to lunch and we got to have some really great conversation about our experience as feminist games bloggers and publishers in an industry that is overtly hostile to both of these things:

Mike was very open about the difficulties that he’s faced in trying to push inclusivity in the game products he’s worked on. He talked about how he’d been assuming diversity of representation was the default, only to realize later that there were many others who had assumed the opposite, who feared they might face consequences if they pushed their content “too far”. And now he’s working to actively make D&D products more inclusive going forward (something which I will write about in further detail later).

All in all, it was a really great conversation in which both Tracy and I were encouraged to be honest about our feelings and personal experience, which – let me tell you – is not always the case when talking with male industry professionals.

It was a great experience – not feeling as though I had to walk on eggshells when describing my feelings about everything that had happened was both cathartic and encouraging. However, what I didn’t write about at the time – as I didn’t want to jeopardize it from actually happening – was the fact that I came out of that lunch with an offer to do some (paid) consulting work regarding issues of inclusivity for the D&D team. It wound up taking many months to set in motion – personal real-life stuff for both of us delayed matters, as did the fact that WotC is part of Hasbro, which is a big company and not all that inclined to move quickly on anything. But this past spring I finally got a chance to do some of that consulting work! (Though of course I was under an NDA and wasn’t sure until I talked to Mike what all I would be allowed to talk about.)

The Work: How to Portray Women (and Visible Minorities)

In the end, I wound up doing research and writing that culminated in the creation of a (somewhat) brief document on guidelines designed to aid in the creation of positive depictions of women in D&D products. It was a tough project! Essentially, I was being asked to distill everything that I’d been thinking about since starting this blog into only a few pages – which seemed a Herculean task. Especially as I felt that I would be remiss if I were to write such a document and not say anything about the positive depiction of both visible (ethnic) minorities and invisible (people with disabilities, LGBT people, etc) minorities! The outline for the initial draft was… formidable. It required a lot of hatchet work to get it down, and writing the actual draft was a challenging exercise in brevity – something I’ve never excelled at. Still, the end result is something that I am proud to have written, especially knowing that it will get used.

Much of it is fairly dry and specific to the publishing processes of a large game company like WotC – ways to plan the structure of new products in ways that would challenge default white-and-male assumptions that tend to go into world-building, ways to write art notes and plan art direction that would do the same. But in the end, the document that I created was well-received, and the few revisions that Mike and his team suggested were super on-point. Even better, speaking as a freelancer, it was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had doing work-for-hire writing. The work that I contracted to do reflected a fair rate for the amount of research and revision that needed to be done, rather than being a simple flat per-word rate. In fact, even though I would have liked to have been paid a bit quicker (again, Hasbro is a big company), it stands as one of only two freelance assignments I’ve ever taken where I felt that the total compensation is a fair reflection of the time, effort, and energy invested into it. (Which is no small thing, as recent conversations in the indie-sphere have helped to highlight.)

I did get permission to share part of that document (not a done deal, since WotC owns the rights to what I wrote, per the agreement that was signed when we were negotiating the work) that is totally accessible and useful and not dry and publisher-specific! But I’ll come back to that in a minute since first I’d like to talk about…

Lunch: The Sequel! (or if you prefer – Mike Mearls and Tracy Hurley: The Revenge!)

Convention season is a busy time for publishers, and what with this year’s GenCon falling extra early in the calendar it wasn’t a done deal that we’d be having lunch until about a week beforehand. (And for the second year in a row, I showed up in costume. But that’s a different story.)

Once again, it was a really great experience. We did talk a bit about the circumstances that had lead to our original gathering the year before and how those circumstances were currently playing out at this year’s convention. But mostly we talked about things pertaining to the need for diversity in the industry, such as the lack of diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider program and the forces working against the push for increased diversity of voices. I’d also sent Mike a link to my recent post about the… uh… inconsistent art direction coming out of WotC. Quite happily, he’d actually had a chance to read it, and we had some excellent conversation about that issue specifically. A lot of the points that I raised were things he hadn’t been aware of (not surprising, since he works on D&D and not Magic), and I’m cautiously hopeful that this year’s lunch might also see some positive change! I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

All in all, it was a much needed breath of fresh air. Just as with last year, Mike, Tracy, and I had some really great and positive discussion. And given that last year’s meeting led to real, honest, actual work that can be used to help create change, I’m hopeful that things will keep moving in that direction. Moreover, it’s heartening to see a major company like WotC taking up the banner and pushing for positive depictions of diversity in their products. WotC has the sort of customer base that most indie publishers can’t ever hope to match, so their commitment to doing the work is something that really matters.

Last: The Excerpt – Do’s and Don’ts of Inclusive Writing and Art Direction

Because I said that I’d post an excerpt, and because it’s work that I’m proud of, and because I really do think that it will be helpful to publishers looking for metrics to use in ensuring that their games/settings/scenarios aren’t riddled with unfortunate stereotypes, here are the starting DOs and DON’Ts that were included in the document. Though it references fantasy-specific tropes, these are guidelines that can be applied to just about any game product.


 

Basic Dos and Don’ts of Writing Inclusive Characters

This is far from an exhaustive list of guidelines (many volumes could be written about specific stereotypes, their tropes, and examples of their usage “in the wild”). However, it is a good general framework to help get started in writing inclusive material:

DO… DON’T
…ensure equal representation of major and minor NPCS. Women are 50% of the population, they should be 50% of your NPCs….portray female characters with a wide range of ages, professions, outlooks, and power levels.

…especially make sure that women are represented as authority figures, leaders, and other NPCs integral to a plot or setting.

…write female characters that are important in their own right

…ensure that hero NPCs are racially diverse.

…consider representing typically invisible minorities such as people with disabilities or LGBT people.

…write your first draft, then look for where you have inadvertently included harmful stereotypes.Question your use of every one of them. Are you missing the chance to introduce a more memorable, noteworthy character? Are you passively using harmful stereotypes rather than making an active choice to support diversity? Can you defend the use of a stereotype in each instance?

…replicate stereotypes about women or other marginalized groups….portray female characters who are exclusively young, attractive, romantically available, and/or passively depicted.

…include women in only stereotypical fantasy roles such as barmaids, healers, and prostitutes.

…write female characters who are only important because of their relationships to men

…write heroic NPCs who are all white and antagonists who are all black, or analogues for blackness (Drow, Orcs, etc).

…have your only instance of a character from an invisible minority be a villain.

…assume that you are too open-minded to include stereotypes in your work. We are all the product of a flawed culture and each of us carries unconscious stereotypes.

 

 

Basic Dos and Don’ts of Inclusive Art Direction

DO… DON’T…
…be specific about age, gender, body type, and ethnicity for each art note

…ensure an equal balance of sexualized character illustrations. If there are sexualized women, there should be an equal number of sexualized men.

…be firm with artists in insisting on revisions for art that does not meet the specs requested

…ensure that female characters are interacting with their environment and other characters around them

…depict a wide variety of ethnicities and gender expressions across all character types

…include fat women as non-monstrous characters. Healthy, strong, heroic women can also be fat.

…consider writing your art notes “backwards”: age, body type, description, attire, action, pose, and only THEN gender and/or ethnicity.

…leave the details up to the artist. Defaultism means that your illustrations will come back predominantly white and male.

…confuse “sexualized men” with “male power fantasies”. When in doubt, confer with someone attracted to men.

…accept illustrations that objectify or dehumanize. Sexy people are fine, collections of sexy body parts are not.

…allow more than a few pieces of art depicting passively posed female characters not interacting with the world around them.

…portray angelic or explicitly good-aligned beings as exclusively blond. (This is problematically Aryan.)

…allow the only depictions of fat women and/or mothers to be inhuman or monstrous.

 

 

(Phew!)

Life is Strange and the importance of womens’ stories

[Concerning spoilers: Before I get started, this post does contain spoilers. I have written as broadly as I can about certain plot points to avoid ruining the story, but a certain level of specificity is required. Only episode 1 is spoiled in any great detail. If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, I’ll mark the point in the post past which you’ll want to stop reading.]

(spoiler-free) reflections on the “relateable-ness[1]” of women’s stories

I spent a large portion of my free time last week catching up on Life Is Strange, the breathtakingly amazing adventure game/RPG by Dontnod studios about a high school senior who discovers that she can rewind time by about two minutes and her subsequent, increasingly weird, adventures as she attempts to solve the mystery of a missing student while also averting a vision of a disastrous future.

If that description doesn’t sound appealing, then let me add that I hate adventure games and make a point of avoiding them at all costs. But I have loved LiS episodes 1-3 and am eagerly awaiting the next installment! The writing is compelling – I cried at the end of episode 2 and damn near cried at the end of episode 3. It also feels very true-to-life; certainly Max’s (the protagonist) experiences as she awkwardly attempts to navigate the treacherous social waters of her school felt very true to my experiences as an outsider at my own high school.

So given the enjoyable gameplay, the well-crafted writing, and the fact that playing Life is Strange gave me ALL OF THE FEELS, you’d think that I’d be willing to shout its praise from the rooftops, right?

But when a male friend asked if he should give it a try, once I’d played through the first few hours of episode 1, I found myself stymied as to how to answer; the friend in question didn’t have the experience of being a teenage girl, for one, and that shared experience with the protagonist is part of what made the game so compelling for me. Not to mention that Life is Strange is a game that is primarily about the stories of women and girls, and “naturally” wouldn’t be as compelling or relateable to a male audience. So I wound up giving an equivocal answer, something along the lines of “I’m enjoying it but I don’t know how you’d like it”.

It was only later when I was discussing it with my husband that I caught myself making the same disclaimers and realized that that whole line of reasoning was absolutely full of shit.

The coming-of-age story is so ridiculously common that it has become a cornerstone of the modern literary and film canon. And while it’s true that there are a few examples where coming-of-age stories feature a female protagonist, the genre is largely defined by its male protagonists. But if I, as someone who has never been a teenage boy or had any experience of trying to navigate the social pressures of assuming a restrictive cultural definition of manhood, can be capable of consuming male coming-of-age stories and finding them (the well-crafted ones, at any rate) engaging, then why shouldn’t the opposite be true?

Books like Catcher in the Rye are considered to classics, books that truly educated people should have read. However, had Holden Caulfield been a girl, it’s most likely that Catcher in the Rye would be consigned to “young adult” or “girl’s” literature status, along with Judy Blume and any number of talented authors who wrote about girls’ experiences of being a teenager.

This is because in our patriarchal society, men are the default. Their stories are “universal” “accessible” “relateable” and “important”. Conversely, women are specific, atypical, unrelateable, and unimportant. And yet, even knowing all of that, my initial gut reaction when I was asked “should I play this” by a friend who is a man was “well I like it but it might not be to your taste”. Which was dumb, since Life is Strange is one of the most powerful, important games that I have ever played – something more than just another murder simulator that I devoutly hope that represents a new direction for AAA game studios like Squeenix.

past this point, there be spoilers

So what makes Life is Strange so important, you might ask? Well, gentle reader, LiS is unlike any game I have played before, for a number of reasons.

First, it is full of complex female characters. There are strong characters, passive characters, antagonist characters, and vulnerable characters. More importantly, all of the major female characters are complex enough that they can fill different roles at different times.

There are characters, like Victoria Chase and her lackies, who are undisputed villains, but they are never presented as villains because of their gender. It’s a tricky balance to strike, given that the actions that make them villains are very stereotypical teenage girl cruelty, but Victoria and her gang are given motivations that go beyond simply “girls are all enemies”. (It helps that Victoria does also get some small moments of sympathy, when the player is allowed to see behind the mask.)

lis-kate

There are also female characters with whom you form strong bonds of love and respect: Chloe and Joyce (Chloe’s mother), but also Kate to a lesser extent (if you choose to help her). Particularly with Chloe and Joyce, while these relationships have troubled aspects, they are also painted as enduring – which is refreshing, given how depressingly common “cat fight” is  as a default relationship for female characters in ANY medium.

Second, LiS takes a serious look at the lives and relationships of teenage girls without trivializing or infantalizing them. Because of how we’ve been conditioned to see the struggles of teenage girls navigating a path to adulthood as unimportant, it’s easy to look at a game like LiS and see nothing but “teenage drama”. Thankfully, the writers do an amazing job of looking at the emotional consequences of that “drama” and how that pain causes people to feel and react.

Third, LiS deals explicitly with bullying and the realities of online harassment – and it doesn’t do so in a way that feels preachy or out of touch. Kate Marsh, one of the secondary characters, starts out as a target of bullying, which later escalates to online harassment. The LiS writers also do a good job of portraying how often the systems of power that are supposed to intervene and keep us (women) safe from harassment wind up further victimizing the women who attempt to access help. And as someone who has experienced both bullying in school and online harassment, I can attest that some of the interactions dealing with Kate were uncomfortably close to home.

lis-kate marsh

Depending on the choices that you make, Max herself can also become a target of online harassment. The messages you receive are unnerving and arrive at unpredictable intervals, which is also true to life. It’s strange and upsetting to be in the middle of going about your business only to have these terrible messages intrude on what you were trying to do:

text

 

Fourth, LiS portrays sexism as a reality of navigating the world as a woman without ever shying away from the terrible emotional damage that that reality creates. One of the primary villains, Nathan Prescott, is a villain because he is rich and entitled – with that sense of entitlement extending to the bodies of the young women around him.

lis-nathan

David, the security chief of Max’s school and Chloe’s stepfather, is also a villain and cautionary tale. He, a grown-ass adult, develops a weird and creepy obsession with a series of teenage girls (one of which is Max), and yet you as the protagonist have to be careful in dealing with him because of the power that he holds over your life. Later, if you choose to hide the first time Chloe butts heads with David, Chloe actually gets slapped by her stepfather but says nothing to anyone, saying that it just would have been worse if you’d tried to step in. And further down the line, if you choose to side with two other female characters in confronting him about his creepy and inappropriate behavior, he throws it back in your face by saying “bitches always stick together”.

And then there are the male authority figures and how they deal with the aftermath of Kate’s bullying coming to a dramatic head at the end of episode 2. It turns out that Mr. Jefferson, a teacher who is portrayed in very sympathetic terms, tried to talk to Kate about the online abuse, only to then blame her for her own victimization. David, who you already know to be a creep, is there in his official capacity. And then there is Nathan, a student, and Principal Wells – who has already proven that he is too invested in the Prescott’s money to take any serious action against Nathan, despite his key role in the matter.

life-is-strange-2-fina

Max, as the protagonist, finds herself the lone woman in an office full of powerful men who are demanding that she tell the truth about what happened, while also clearly conveying the subtext that doing so is clearly against Max’s own best interests. Which is some powerful shit, right there.

Lastly, and most importantly, LiS deals with sexual violence openly and honestly, without trivializing it or excusing it.

One of the key plot points is that young women are getting drugged at parties and being taken advantage of. As a protagonist, you must decide how to react on two separate occasions when two very different women tell you very similar stories of being drugged and possibly assaulted. Do you believe the women and offer support and backup? Or do you keep your distance by engaging in victim blaming? Moreover, the reaction if you do engage in victim blaming is emotionally wrenching and deeply shaming, which is as it should be!

Critically, LiS also avoids perpetrating the common (harmful) “wisdom” about sexual assault by having these attacks come from someone that is known to the victims. Because unfortunately, that is the reality of sexual assault; overwhelmingly women are attacked by people that they know and have reason to trust; evil-stranger-in-the-bushes assaults do exist, but are very rare. Neither do the writers flinch from showing how there are systems and institutions created by class and money (like school and the police) that protect serial predators from the consequences of their actions, so that they can be free to keep assaulting.

And yet, as difficult as these things are to deal with emotionally when presented in such hard-hitting terms, these factors all make me very happy that this game exists. Because THIS GAME. THIS GAME is the sort of thing that I have been wishing major studios like Squeenix would start publishing. Apart from its own merits as an artistic work, playing Life is Strange made me feel like there was actually a part of the gaming industry that was listening, that gave a shit about me as a human being. Finally, finally, it feels like someone is reflecting myself (or a younger version of myself) and my experiences, and that feeling is amazing.

[1] Yes that is too a word. Shut up, spell check.

Female protagonists in E3 trailers! AAA devs remember that women exist! [LONG]

Another E3 has come and gone! And it seems that, after the debacle of last year’s E3, that developers are making a bit more of an effort to not fail at easily-preventable sexism. While still nowhere near parity, there were at least more female presenters than severed heads, unlike last year. Similarly, all of the studios managed not to say anything as colossally bone-headed as Ubisoft talking about why female characters couldn’t be included in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

Progress?

Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that last year, the game trailers that were featured starred characters that were almost entirely white and male. However, this year there were more games featuring prominent female characters! So much so that The Mary Sue did this roundup of E3 game trailers for “23 games from E3 with badass playable female characters“.

Sounds great, right? From almost no games with female protagonists to 23 in one year? What an amazing shift! Unfortunately, what I discovered when I started going through the list is that TMS’ optimism on this front is perhaps a bit… overblown. While it’s true that there are a good number of promising-looking games featuring some pretty nifty-looking female characters, there are also lots of actually-not-super-awesome games in that mix as well.

So while I normally don’t like to do detailed takedowns of pieces featured on other blogs, I thought it would be useful to go through the list of games as compiled by TMS and why the picture isn’t, perhaps, quite as rosy as they paint it. (Although there still are things that are justifiably worth being excited over.) Since genre and game type make it a bit difficult to compare things evenly, I’ve broken this list into a few categories just to make my life easier.

MOBAs that have female characters

There were four games featured at E3 with rosters of set characters that the player chooses from, and three of the four are MOBAs. (It seems League of Legends clones are the new hotness bandwagon that game studios are all trying to jump on?) And not a one of these four games features an evenly split character roster.

The worst of the lot is Battleborn, which is being developed by the creators of Borderlands. Admittedly, the website says that there will be a roster of 25 characters, and so far only ten have been revealed. However, out of those ten characters, only 3 are women:

battleborn

Even worse, the three female characters are all waifishly thin with impossible (no room for internal organs, over-inflated sphere-boobs) figures. And while the male characters are all over the place in type from “ruggedly handsome” to “huge and burly” to “sentient mushroom”, the weirdest any of the women get is a button-ish eye-patch with a funky coat and hat. (Yet another example of the interesting/pretty gender binary, sadly.) I’d also be willing to wager that not a one of the as-yet-to-be-revealed female characters looks either old, ugly, or at all monstrous.

Overwatch manages to do a bit better; 6 out of its 14 characters are female. Unfortunately, as I’ve written about previously, its character designs are also… so. Very. Regressive – which is pretty sad, since Blizzard went into this project with declarations that they wanted to “do women better”.

Now, it is true that since writing my old post about Overwatch, Zarya has been added to the roster. And I’ll admit, that helps, because seriously look at her:

paxeast2015_0014_zarya-overview
Very bicep. So muscle. Amaze!

Unfortunately, one awesome character doesn’t make up for the fact that women still aren’t evenly represented, and the other female characters designs still suck.

Out of the MOBAs previewed at E3, Gigantic is definitely the best, even if it falls just short of gender parity in its character roster (7 of 16 characters are female):

g-griselma

While it’s true that there is definitely some sigh-inducing character design with Tripp and Vadasi (seriously, they look like they’d blow away in a stiff breeze), there are things to be happy about. Griselma is a tiny old woman, which gives her automatic awesome points. (Because old women make anything cooler, especially if they’re grandmothers.) Imani is also a great example of a tough-but-stylish bruiser – and a WoC to boot? Fantastic! Lastly, Mozo is actually a monstrous non-human that is still gendered as female, which is surprising and excellent! She’s still a little on the “adorable” side, but it’s super encouraging to see her and Xenobia look actually monstrous – even if Xenobia is more sexy-monstrous than monstrous-monstrous.

Lastly, I’m lumping in Fable Legends with this category, even though its only multiplayer is an up-to-4-player cooperative mode – simply because it also has a roster of preselected characters that you choose to play as.

Fable Legends comes close, again, to gender parity, with 5 of 11 characters being female. Unfortunately, it also has terrible character designs. Only one of the five women isn’t blatantly objectified, and surprisingly she’s a mage:

fl-celeste

Glory’s costume is actually pretty great! Mage-y without being impractical or sexualizing, it’s a pretty excellent example of decent character design! However, Glory is also the only character who gets to wear pants, and all of the other character designs are ridiculous, implausible, or straight-up problematic.

Take Inga, who is wearing ridiculously bulky plate mail, wields a crazily large tower shield, and yet for some reason has decided – you know what, who needs pants? AMIRITE? Because how would we know that Inga is a woman without some sort of blatant objectification? Then of course, you have Evienne who fights with an improbably large sword, despite the fact that she would die in about 3 seconds flat after tripping over her dress or getting her sword tied up in those stupidly trailing sleeves. Winter is yet another example of a cold-based character who isn’t properly dressed for her element (why only one pant leg?). And Celeste is… well let’s just say that Celeste’s design seems uncomfortably “tribal” to me, given that she’s also the only WoC on the roster.

So while Gigantic comes the closest to having a cast of characters that you can be happy about, most of these games are just “more of the same” as far as trends in MOBA design are concerned. A slight uptick in female representation doesn’t change the fact that female characters are still outnumbered and disproportionately objectified.

Generic customizable characters with no effect on gameplay

Three of the 23 games in TMS’ preview are games where playable characters are simple avatars with no real effect on a supposed plot or gameplay – Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Battlecry.

Battlecry is a shooter-MMO centered around squad-on-squad combat, so it’s no surprise that it would include playable female characters as avatar options. However, as far as I can tell, this is the first time in either the Call of Duty or the Tom Clancy franchise that playable female characters will be an option in the single-player campaign. Which, you know, progress? I suppose it’s nice that in 2015, women are finally allowed to get female pixels all up in their AAA murder simulators. But aside from the obvious question of WHY WASN’T THAT AN OPTION ALREADY?, this doesn’t really represent anything terribly new or interesting for AAA games, gender-wise.

Although I will admit that, if one screenshot is an accurate reflection, I do really like the female character design for The Division:

the-division

So there’s that at least.

Story-based, can select either a male or female character

The next category is, thankfully, much more encouraging – even if it’s not universally promising. Six of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece are various flavor of RPGish game ranging from action-stealth to action-shooter to just straight up action-fantasy. These are all games where you have a choice between playing a male or a female character – Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fallout 4, Ashen, Dishonored 2, Nier 2, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

(It is worth pointing out that Mass Effect and Fallout do technically have generic customizeable characters, and as such it could be argued that they should be lumped in with the previous category. However, story in games like Call of Duty exists only to get you from one map to the next in the single-player campaign mode, whereas story in a Mass Effect or Fallout game is one of the primary motivations for playing the game in the first place. So since character choice in these games matters beyond “what does my murder hobo look like”, it feels more appropriate to lump them in with the single-player story-based games.)

The shape of the choice between male and female characters varies slightly by game. Both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Fallout 4 will force you to choose up front, either you will play a male protagonist or a female protagonist. As with previous entrants in their respective series, the differences in character appearance are mostly insignificant. (Although it should be noted that the promo art for ME: Andromeda features male and female versions of a soldier character where the woman is standing in a Blatant Sexy Pose. Uncool, BioWare. UNCOOL.)

Ashen and Dishonored 2 are a bit less clear cut. There are options for both male and female characters, but it’s not clear (at least from what I’ve been able to find) if you can switch back and forth or if you are locked in once you’ve made your choice. In Ashen, the character choice seems less meaningful because the characters are literally generic – they’re rendered without faces and only minimal differentiation by gender. However, Dishonored 2 will actually give you the choice of either playing as the previous games male protagonist, Corvo, or as the girl that he rescued in that game – Emily – as the two of you seek to get her throne back. Which, honestly, with a choice like that, why would anyone choose the boring male protagonist over the dethroned heir?

Last are Nier 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – which both appear to be games that will let you switch between male and female characters. Both games offer cause for optimism – Nier 2 looks to be a lush JRPG by Squeenix, who has a history of doing well by their female characters. And Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate actually stars two assassins – twins Jacob and Evie Frye who have very different styles, and who approach their missions very differently.

However, it’s hard for me to hold out great hopes for either games. While it’s great that Assassin’s Creed for the PC is finally going to have a female protagonist, it’s still being published by Ubisoft – so hopefully those elusive ladypixels don’t prove too intractable. As for Nier 2, it’s apparently being developed by the team behind Bayonetta, which… uh. Yeah. They’re the folks that thought that this was an empowering female character:

[headdesk]

Explicitly Female-Lead single-character titles

So out of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece, that leaves a total of ten games that are explicitly female-lead: FIFA 16, Adr1ft, Tacoma, Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne, Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, and Beyond Eyes.

female-lead
TOP, LEFT TO RIGHT: Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne BOTTOM, LEFT TO RIGHT: Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, Beyond Eyes

(I was unable to find screenshots of the protagonists for Tacoma or Adr1ft, and it seemed a bit weird to include FIFA 16.)

And granted, that’s a pretty good selection! It seems like in the past, the titles previewed by AAA developers almost all starred white, square-jawed, grimdark antiheroes and if we were lucky there might be a female-led game that looked worth playing. Maybe. So this represents a pretty big departure from the All Dudez All the Time school of game development.

The core conceits of all of these games are pretty diverse as well. From Beyond Eyes – which is centered around a blind little girl looking for her missing cat, to Adr1ft – which has you playing a female astronaut trying to survive the explosion of a space station, to Horizon Zero Dawn – which has a post-apocalyptic wildling fighting robo-dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. (Which sounds awesome.)

There is, of course, still room for improvement, as always. The protagonists of these games do skew heavily white (though I’ll note that the protagonist of Adr1ft – Alex Oshima – is rumored to be a WoC, even if I couldn’t find a screenshot of her). And as noted at the beginning of my post, it would be great to see AAA developers catch on to the notion that there are more than two options when selecting a protagonist’s gender. But I’m sure that there are people who feel that these are relatively minor complaints in the face of what appears to be real change in AAA development trends.

Still, while I do find many of these games compelling and encouraging, I’m also holding on to a lot of skepticism. The previous Tomb Raider, the first in the newer-grittier-realistic-Lara-Croft series, was disappointing in how far it went to brutalize a previously-strong female character for the sake of making her “vulnerable”. (A cliche that I’m honestly pretty sick of. What is it about a strong female character that makes developers want to brutalize her to take away that strength? Why can’t we just let a strong female character BE STRONG and leave it at that?) So I’m hoping that the previous game will have reestablished Lara’s “strong female character” cred and the developers will dial back on the brutality this time around.

Mirror’s Edge is also a source of some concern, seeing as how the new game is a prequel to the first two – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the devs on that team are looking to the previous Tomb Raider game as a cautionary tale and that they won’t be tempted to craft a horrifically brutal origin story for Faith.

And maybe I’m being too grumpy about all of this. Is there a lot here to be hopeful about? Absolutely! But it’s also true that there is a lot here in these previews that represents “more of the same”, and I’m not all that inclined to celebrate game developers who expect us to be excited about character rosters that under represent and oversexualize women.

Feminist-leaning dudes: let’s have “the talk”

In the last few months, I’ve found myself having several variations on what I think of as “the talk” with male friends and/or acquaintances. These guys have been people who have discovered that they have explicitly feminist leanings in the not-very-distant-past, who want to do more but are not really sure what to do with the generalized guilt that comes with feeling complicit for the failings of their gender. Since I kept repeating myself, I thought it would be worth writing about here.

So – dudes and dude-identified people! If the first paragraph sounds like you, then pull up a chair because it’s time to have “the talk”. (I promise it won’t be as bad as the actual “talk”.)

First: the pep talk that isn’t

You are going to fuck up. Accept that as a fact of reality. Gravity is a constant, the sun rises in the East, Taylor Swift’s music is pretty good despite that people like to make fun of it, and you are going to fuck up. Period. It is as inevitable as climate change or Fox News anchors being racist. You are going to fuck up. That may seem, on it’s face, a bleak statement to make. However, I give this knowledge to you as a gift to liberate you from fear.

As privileged people, we know that we shouldn’t engage in racist/misogynist/whatever-ist behavior. And fundamentally, everyone wants to believe that they are one of the good guys – that they are a decent human beings despite their faults! And as a privileged person who is starting to learn about feminism and social justice, sometimes that fear of fucking up can be paralyzing. Because you want to not to be like the other privileged asshats out there! You want to be better than that!

The problem with that way of thinking, however, is that taken to extremes, that fear can cause you to prioritize your fear of not wanting to be seem as [whatever]-ist over the feelings of real actual people suffering that real actual -ism. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s never pretty when it does. Because inevitably, it goes something like this:

Privileged person: [fucks up]

Marginalized person: Dude, you just fucked up.

Privileged person: How dare you! I would never fuck up! I’m a GOOD person, not some terrible, awful fuckup! You’re just a bully! A big stupid bully!

Marginalized person: [headdesk]

So instead of being “That Ally”, accept the inevitability of fucking up.

It does not give you permission to willfully be an asshat – you do still need to try not to fuck up; ironic sexism is still fucking sexism and it still isn’t okay. But fucking up doesn’t make you a monster, it makes you human. Accept that patriarchy has been imposed on you, just as it has been on everyone else. We are all participants in patriarchy.

Fucking up doesn’t make you uniquely horrible or monstrous – it’s simply a thing that people do every day. When it happens, acknowledge it with grace and apologize with sincerity. Then go forth and do better, always remembering that you’re not perfect. If you do really well, you’ll simply find new and different ways of fucking up.

You can choose to be depressed by all of this, but I offer it to you in the spirit of liberation – because the fear of being racist/sexist/whatever-ist and by extension a terrible person can be absolutely paralyzing, and it can take you to some deeply toxic places. So let it go, my friend. Let it go.

Next: Ally 101 – where to go from there

But, wundergeek! That’s it? That’s all I get? Just don’t fuck up, but have fun fucking up anyway?

Well. Yeah – kind of? I mean, there are a ton of resources out there on how to be an effective ally, many of which are pretty easy to find even with weak-to-moderate Google-fu. However, since I’ve also been seeing a lot of the same rookie ally mistakes that have been really getting under my skin, here are the absolute basics of the basics of the basics.

1. Learn to use Google

I appreciate that you’re probably sincere in your desire to learn more. But what you need to appreciate is that engaging with every probably-well-intentioned dude who wants me to give him a reading list to get him started down the path toward Being a Feminist (Ally) would be a colossal waste of my time.

I am not here to educate you. This blog explicitly states is not a 101-level blog and if there’s something here that you have trouble understanding, THAT’S WHAT THE REST OF THE INTERNET IS FOR.

That’s pretty much true for almost any other major feminist you can think of. We have SHIT TO DO that doesn’t include providing reading lists for any old rando who asks. So do yourself a favor and learn how to Google the answers you need. I PROMISE you they are easy to find.

2. Call men on their shit

When a man says or does something shitty in your presence, call him on it. You don’t need a lecture or a special technique or anything. Quite often, a “dude, not cool” will suffice.

Patriarchy is perpetuated by silence, so don’t be silent. As a dude, you have the automatic power of People Always Listening To You – a power most decidedly not conferred on lesser (read: non-dude) mortals[1]. With the benefits of patriarchy comes an obligation to use your power for good.

3. -ist jokes: JUST SAY NO

DO NOT make -ist jokes. Challenge people who make -ist jokes (when you can) in your presence. If you are not able to do so, say, because you work in customer service and this behavior is coming from a customer – refuse to laugh at -ist jokes.

Humans are social animals. The temptation to laugh politely so as to not make a scene will be there. Resist. Because “not making a scene” tells the -ist asshole YOU ARE ON THEIR SIDE

4. Don’t make light of or attempt to find the bright side of abuse

If you know someone who is experiencing sexist/racist/whatever-ist harassment or abuse, for the love of Christ don’t diminish it or try to make it humorous, because I promise you that there is nothing even remotely humorous about what they were experiencing. And yet twice this week I have talked with dudes who have attempted to “find the humor” in the misogynist abuse that I get through this blog. Because, you know – life is funny! Laugh it off! Because misogyny is just such a laugh riot and I should be able to shake it off!

So yeah. Don’t do that. You might think you are helping, BUT YOU ARE NOT. You are doing the opposite of helping.

5. STOP TALKING AND JUST LISTEN

Look, it can be hard when someone you care about or respect tells you about awful shit they are experiencing. It may be that your natural impulse is to jump in and try to help! Because you want to be a not-terrible human being! But that impulse? Sorry dudes – but mostly it is super unhelpful.

Look, as a dude just starting out in feminism I can pretty much guarantee you that any solutions you have to offer are not going to be original. The woman you want to share your “brilliant insights” with will not be awed or impressed, because she will have heard them before from every other well-meaning-but-unhelpful-dude who thinks that he has All The Answers. The thing you’re trying to fix is MY FUCKING LIFE. Which I have been living, all day every day for quite a long time now. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it, seeing as how it’s mine, and I can promise you that the thing that popped into your head after two minutes of listening to me talk about my problems isn’t anything I haven’t already thought about myself.

So stop. Just. STOP. And listen. And when a response seems warranted, practice saying things that follow this formula (your wording may vary):

Expression of sympathy: “That must suck”, “That sounds hard”, “Wow – that’s bullshit” PLUS

Expression of regret: “I’m sorry you have to go through that”, “I’m sorry – you don’t deserve that”, “I’m sorry that happened to you” PLUS

Expression of (CONTEXT-APPROPRIATE) respect and/or appreciation: “You’re my friend and I have your back”, “I love you and I’m here for you”, “I admire your work and continue to find value in what you do”.

Then stop. Listen more. And repeat as needed. Because this? THIS is the shit that keeps me sane when I’m having a bad anxiety day, or when I’m so angry I’m trying not to cry, or when I feel like I just want to give up and walk away from it all. THIS.

Now go forth and do better.

[1] Reasons I have been told that I am not worth listening to in the last month include: I am “fat”, I am “ugly”, I am “unfuckable”, and I kill mens’ boners.