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!)