D&D 5E Core Books: Smurfettes and Sexy Corpses

Well folks, I lied when I said that I was going to focus exclusively on specific pieces of art in today’s post, because there is one very important meta-trend that I forgot. So, since I’ve already sunk more than 3800 words into this series already, let’s just jump straight to business.

Art Trend #3: Smurfette Syndrome

In the first post in this series, I talked about representation of women in group shots and how on the face of it the core books tended to do better  remembering to represent women in those than in the single-character shots – in which women were greatly underrepresented. However, the difference in representation between group shots and single-character illustrations is greatly exaggerated by the way that I counted, because I wasn’t actually looking at gender balance of figures within a group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

And depressingly, there were a significant number of group images that only contained ONE female character:

Bar

The first image might be a little unfair, given that there are two prominently placed female hero characters getting into a serious brawl in the foreground. However, if you take a look at the rest of the figures in the bar, ALL of the patrons shown in the background are men and the only other woman is a goddamn barmaid. The far right image, however, is more typical of what I’m talking about. On the face of it, I like the design of the female thief – she’s an interesting-looking WoC who looks like she’s a pretty capable lady. However, when you look at the image as a whole, the other characters all have discernable character traits – like “bruiser” or “mastermind”, whereas the female thief’s only discernable character trait is “woman”, which just exemplifies the problem with the Smurfette approach to group shot composition. Men can be anything you can imagine while women can be pretty.

The most ridiculous example, however, is the middle image which depicts a battlefield teeming with heroes and monsters, and only contains ONE figure that is discenably female. Because apparently it is easier to conceive of a titanic battle against ogres and skeletons and other monsters than it is to imagine a world where more than one woman might be found on a battlefield.

And it’s sad, because in some regards D&D has made great strides; when it comes to illustrations that are meant to depict a party of adventurers (ie player avatars), it’s clear that a lot of thought and care is being taken to balance gender and other factors. But that same level of care obviously isn’t being applied to the world itself, and the end result is a world creepily devoid of women. (Seriously. Where are they??)

Specific Things That Are Messed Up #1: Conditions

There are lots of specific illustrations that I could rant about, but instead I’m just going to hit the lowlights, as it were. Going from least to most fucked up, we’ll start with the illustrations done for conditions, found in the PHB:

Conditions

This is some of the worst “heroes are always men” bullshit that I have seen in a fucking long time. Sure it includes women, but take a look at what roles they occupy. You have a princess, a witch who is obviously not a PC, and a woman who is too scared of a monster to fight. Way to implicitly tell women that they can’t hack it as adventurers, WotC.

…please excuse me while I go punch the world in the face.

Specific Messed Up Thing #2: Vampire and Vampire Spawn

Perhaps my least favorite pair of illustrations in the Monster Manual are the illustrations for Vampire and Vampire Spawn respectively:

Vampire-wtf

To be honest, when I sat down to try to explain just why this made me so angry, all I could muster was the urge to furiously bang my keyboard.

Thankfully, aggressively curating my circles means that I have some wonderfully intelligent friends on G+, and they were more than happy to point out a whole host of reasons why this was pretty fucked up. (Paraphrasing their words here):

  • The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
  • The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
  • “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
  • The man is a person. The woman is not.
  • They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
  • The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
  • Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
  • Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
  • Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
  • And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods

(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me out on this one.)

Specific Messed Up Thing #3: Women as nurses and sexy corpses

The set of images that most raised my ire were these images from the DMG. These are the only three images in the core books that deal with the aftermath of battle from a PC perspective (there are several of a party of PCs surveying the damage after they have obviously murdilated a bunch of dudes and/or monsters):

Nurse

SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. WHEN WOMEN GET WOUNDED, THEY DIE, BUT WHEN MEN GET WOUNDED THEY GET TO BE TENDED TO BY SEXY ASIAN-ELF NURSES? WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.

[ahem]

Looking at the image on the far left, you have a woman being cradled in the arms of a man. She’s suffered a gut wound, and there don’t seem to be any clerics or other sources of divine healing nearby, which reads to me as though she’s dying. I’ll admit that I do appreciate the way that he’s comforting her – there’s some real tenderness there which isn’t something that you often see in fantasy artwork of this nature. But given how the woman’s arms are raised and she’s clearly about to deliver some Touching Last Words That Will Imbue The Hero With Tragic Purpose To Achieve The Plot Point And Avenge The Woman He Couldn’t Save, it still leaves a bad fucking taste in my mouth.

But AT LEAST as awful as the subtext in the first image is, the woman isn’t being depicted as a SEXY CORPSE, like in the middle illustration. Yes she’s about to have (presumably) a scroll of resurrection recited over her, so she’ll get to not be dead, but look at how she’s twisted around to emphasize the sexy bits, especially that ridiculous fucking boobplate. (Which isn’t as bad as the boobplate in my previous post, but is still pretty fucking bad.) And of course, the cherry on the shit sundae is how she died by getting STABBED IN THE BOOBS.

Which. Seriously. What? NO.

First, the wound depicted would require her to have been stabbed through the sternum, which is one of the hardest points to penetrate on the human body – and with good reason. Your sternum protects some pretty important shit. Second, in order to penetrate BOTH her armor AND sternum with sufficient force to cause lethal damage, there would have to be a much bigger hole in her armor than that tiny-ass hole. I understand wanting to depict sanitized violence, but come on. It’s obvious that the artist just wanted to draw a dead lady who was dead from getting stabbed in the tits because tits.

So it isn’t so much the last image that I am angry about as the contrast between the last image and the first two. Those are some pretty fucking serious wounds that our male warrior friend is getting seen to; the chest wound especially could have been potentially very serious depending on the amount of blood lost. But don’t worry, ladies! He’ll live to fight another day. That is, after he grits his teeth and gets to be all stoic and stuff, and maybe talk a little about how being a hero is a hard job and somebody has to do it and he’d rather it be him than some kid who’s totally unprepared. And then maybe he’ll stare broodingly into the middle distance for a long while before banging that hot elf nurse chick.

I wanted this to be better

The depressing thing about writing this series of posts is that I wound up having so much material to work with. Hell, I have things in my notes that I may come back to and write about later, because it turns out there’s a surprising amount of messed up material enshrined in Forgotten Realms canon that doesn’t come across from just flipping through the books and looking at pictures. But I’d rather not beat a dead horse, so if it’s something I write about I will have to come back to it later.

And that’s not a great feeling, because frankly D&D 5E is still so much better than an awful lot of games out there! Because for all that I can point at specific pieces of art and rant about why they are messed up, at least doing better at depicting women is a priority for the D&D team and they are working on getting better at it. Which is, sadly, more than can be said for a pretty fucking huge portion of the industry.

So as much as I’ve gone on at length about things that D&D has gotten wrong, I feel it’s important to close by noting that they are moving things in the right direction and I hope that they continue to do so.

D&D 5E Core Books: Numbers Aren’t the Whole Story [LONG][MANY IMAGES]

In my last post, I wrote a detailed breakdown of the representation of women in the 5th Edition D&D core books, along with a basic analysis of what those numbers meant. However, as is the case with any numbers post that I do, it’s also important to note that numbers inevitably don’t capture the nuances of depiction that can be important to consider:

Looking at the gender ratios for both fully-covered (characters shown as being covered from neck to ankle and shoulder to wrist) and suggestively attired (characters with either portions of exposed torso or exposed portions of upper thigh) characters, the numbers collected make it appear as though depictions are pretty evenly balanced across all three books. However in all of the PHB, there were only 6 illustrations that I outright rolled my eyes of, whereas I just plain wanted to chuck half of the monster manual in the garbage for how bullshit it’s treatment of women is.

…I suspect that a large portion of the reason behind this is my decision to include ungendered figures in my counts for the first time; that is probably throwing off my results in ways I haven’t figured out how to account for yet. This in combination with the fact that how I define “suggestively attired” and “fully covered” and how consistently I apply these definitions are intended to over-correct for the difference in depiction, since my own personal bias is admittedly… pretty strong.

To be honest, in going through the images (and there are a lot of them), I would be hard-pressed to nail down a definitive reason for why the numbers appear so much more equitable than the reality. But I can at least speak to some broad trends:

But first, an aside

As mentioned last time, one of the things that struck me about the imbalanced depiction of women was that it was “best” (ie most balanced) in the PHB and “worst” in the Monster Manual, with the DMG falling squarely in the middle. But once I took some time to reflect on that, it actually wasn’t all that surprising.

Consider that the PHB is aimed at depicting characters that would make appealing avatars in a game. Since WotC is taking greater pains to not alienate women, it makes sense that the art direction would be strongest with regard to cutting down on bullshit depictions of women in the PHB. In a very real sense, the art in the PHB is a reflection of what the players can aspire to be in the context of the D&D universe, so art that only depicts women as sexy objects to be consumed by a presumed male viewer would be counterproductive to the goal of getting more women to play the game.

The DMG, however, is focused just as much as on depicting the world and opposition that the PCs will face as it is on depicting avatar characters. And the Monster Manual is used pretty much only as an aid to the GM in fleshing out antagonists the PCs will face. (There are some circumstances, say if you play a shifter druid, where the Monster Manual can be used as a player supplement, but those circumstances are comparatively rare.) Consequently, the less explicitly player-focused the book is, the worse the art seems to get.

And, obviously, that sucks! Because honestly, yes it’s nice that D&D is doing better at portraying female characters who function as player avatars. But only doing well at player-avatars is it’s own special brand of fucked up, because you’re essentially saying that women who are heroes (PCs) are special snowflakes who have somehow managed to transcend sexism and oppression by just, I don’t know, shaking off patriarchy. Which just isn’t how it fucking works.

Art Trend #1: The men are men and the women are sexy

One thing I will say for the PHB is that as irksome as I find the lack of female representation, there were only five illustrations in the PHB that I found really objectionable, and those were mostly because it was obvious that the artist in question was doing their best to thwart art notes that called for characters that weren’t gratuitously sexualized:

PHB-BS

All of these (except the woman in the middle) were counted as suggestively attired, owing to what the artist chose to reveal, though some of these are a bit more obviously egregious than others. For instance, the woman on the far left, and the druid with the tiger? Those are obviously bullshit. Leather bustiers as armor are one of the most common of cheesecake fantasy art sins, and sexy ladies with tigers is it’s own special subspecies of fantasy art bullshit I wish would go away forever. However, looking at the others, it’s still obvious that the artists were determined to squeeze in the maximum sexiness that they felt they could get away with.

Frex, look at the contorted pose that the elven mage is twisted into – I don’t care that she’s not human, that is an unnatural degree of spine bend, for no other reason than to emphasize her… attributes. Her top is also completely strapless and I’m not sure how she’s keeping it up, since double-sided tape isn’t exactly something you can find on an item table in the DMG. Or take the ranger on the far right – the artist was clearly hoping that no one would notice that she’s not actually wearing pants. (“It’s called barkskin, so clearly she’s gotta show some skin, right?”)

Lastly, check out the druid in the middle. This is one of the clearest cases of “draw naked, add clothes with extreme reluctance” that I’ve seen in a while. What the fuck is up with that ass perspective? And that ridiculous ass-leaf is only emphasizing how we can aaalmoooost see some rear-camel-toe, rather than doing anything to actually preserve modesty. But despite being worse than the pantsless ranger on the far right in terms of degree of sexualization, she is still counted as not suggestively attired while the ranger is.

It’s also important to consider that characters counted as fully-covered were also depressingly prone to being sexualized, even when they weren’t counted as being suggestively attired. Take, for instance, these four illustrations from the DMG which all depict women counted as fully-covered.:
Fully-covered-DMG

The half-orc on the far left is the only one counted as suggestively attired, owing to the ridiculous cleavage window (which wasn’t even well done, why are her breasts so weirdly shaped, what the hell). And yet, out of all of these women, she’s actually the least egregious because at least she’s not overly objectified or distorted, and seems to be having an actual character moment. Whereas the left-middle woman and the far-right woman are both wearing some of the most fucking ridiculous boobplate I have ever seen[1] and are both shown in poses that I can only describe as “boob perspective”.

And while the right-middle woman isn’t wearing boobplate, the artist clearly got so wrapped up in drawing her strange armored stripper boots that he kind of forgot to pay attention to how the middle bits all go together, and then just kind of said “fuck it, I’m going to add a naked fire lady because who cares?”. So once again, despite the fact that the criteria for “fully covered” is clearly defined, sometimes images that technically fail to meet that criteria are better than the ones that do!

And of course, it’s definitely worth mentioning that even when there are male and female figures that are both meant to be sexy, the women are clearly more objectified than the men, as is the case with this illustration of an incubus and a succubus in the Monster Manual:


Succubi

As a matter of fact, in all of the 5E core books, there was only one illustation of a male character that I would be willing to say was as equally sexualized as most of the sexualized women:

sexy-man

If even half of the male characters that were counted as suggestively attired looked like this guy, I don’t think I would have found the unequal sexualization nearly so bothersome. But unfortunately, what so many people fail to grasp (as witnessed by the fact that people commonly think that Conan is “as bad” as Red Sonja) is that simply not wearing a shirt/pants is not the same thing as being sexualized. Which brings us to…

Art Trend #2: Male figures counted as “suggestively attired” are almost never sexy; female figures almost always are

This is something that I have written about extensively on this blog in the past (you can find this point mentioned in pretty much all of my numbers posts); the prevailing trend in fantasy artwork is to use otherwise suggestive attire to make a statement about the “bestial” or “savage” nature of a culture being depicted. Because almost universally, characters shown in attire that would count as suggestive (no shirt, no pants, etc) are clearly not intended to be found sexually appealing.

There is also a tendency for “savage” characters to be depicted in hordes, which given that I am basing my figures on the numbers of distinct individual figures, throws off the numbers quite a bit. Goblins most especially tend to wreck my results, given that there’s always tons of them, and they’re never wearing any goddamn pants:

Group-PHB

Now, I feel pretty strongly that none of the goblins in the above illustrations were intended to be viewed as sexualized. But since I realize that some people could still make an argument to the contrary, here are some even more extreme examples of male figures that were counted as suggestively attired that are really really not sexy:

Suggestive-male-monsters

All of these were figures that were counted as male, and all of these are really, really not sexy. Especially the two on the left! And yet just like the goblins, all of these are characters that counted as suggestively attired, which has the unfortunate effect of making it look as if the numbers of suggestively attired characters are close to balanced, when they’re really really not.

Of course, the worst book with regard to this trend was the Monster Manual, where any creature you might face is assumed to be male, unless it is female – and then it is sexy. Here are just a few of the my least favorite examples:

Sexy-monsters

Sexy-monsters2

What the fuck is up with the black-armor demon’s broken spine pose? Why are the marilith and the ghost both making duckface? Why did they give A GODDAMN ROCK cleavage? Why would a drider wear midriff-exposing scale male when she’s a fucking spider? Why does the sea hag have so much goddamn sideboob?? I swear to god I couldn’t go more than about 10 or 20 pages without seeing some bullshit that reminded me of how much gaming hates women, which is just depressing.

The contrast only gets more ridiculous on the rare occasions when you have male and female depictions side-by-side (something which is surprisingly rare in the Monster Manual, but only because the Monster Manual doesn’t contain very many women at all). Take, for example, these merfolk:

Merfolk

With the male figure on the right, the artist clearly put a lot of thought into how this human-fish hybrid would work. There is a lot of detail put into the musculature of not just the torso as it joins with the lower half, but also the neck, shoulders, and arms. Whereas with the female figure on the left? About the only real anatomical considerations are giving this poor woman some sexay fish boobs.

However, the award for the absolute worst example of this goes hands down to the Yuan-ti:

Yuan-ti

Seriously? SERIOUSLY? What the fuck is this shit? What the hell happened that the general art directive was something along the lines of “make D&D suck less at women” and then this happened? Because the two male yuan-ti are side by side in a full page spread, and the Yuan-ti Pureblood is LITERALLY ON THE NEXT PAGE. Which is basically the visual equivalent of “OKAY BUT IF THERE’S ANY CHICKS THERE I WANT TO DOOO THEM!”

flip_over_desk.0

But wait! There’s more!

That’s it for larger trends, but believe me, folks, I’m just getting started. I’ve got about another 2,000 words that I want to write about some very specific fucked up things going on in the 5E Core books, but this post is long enough already. So expect more in a day or two!



[1] Seriously, in boobplate that extreme it would only take one reasonably-strong blow to the sternum to kill you. The purpose of armor is to DEFLECT the blow, not to channel force to the most vulnerable parts of your anatomy, for Christ’s sake.

Representation in D&D 5E Core Books: “better than the rest” unfortunately still falls short [CHARTS!!]

Introduction

Right before leaving for this year’s GenCon, I put up a post about my frustrations with the lack of consistency of art direction between Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons; both product lines are owned and published by Wizards of the Coast, so I’ve always found it confusing that their art directions are so divergent wrt depictions of women. Happily, this actually wound up being a major topic of conversation during my lunch this year with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls, and as a result I found myself wanting to take a more definitive look at the D&D 5E core books to see how they compared to M:TG’s recent art direction in terms of actual numbers. Because while I’ve done some work that I’m very excited about aimed at increasing the diversity of representation in D&D products, there’s no real substitute for looking at actual numbers and getting a clear picture of where something actually stands.

Now, I’ve written about the D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook in the past, which can be summed up as ZOMG! SO MANY AWSUM WIMMINZ!! So I was honestly a bit reluctant to go through and examine all of the images in detail, because I was afraid that my overwhelmingly positive feelings would be complicated by the actual reality. And it turns out that I was right to be concerned, unfortunately. (But I’ll come back to that part.)

Methodology

In writing my initial post about 5th Edition artwork, I only had access to the PHB. However, this time around I decided to examine the PHB, Dungeon Masters’ Guide, and Monster Manual, because those are the three books required to “make the system go” as it were. (Though certainly a large number of players who didn’t plan on GMing would only own the PHB.)

As with all of my other “numbers” posts, I was specifically interested in tracking the following criteria:

  • total breakdown of figures by gender
  • prevalence of fully-covered versus suggestively-attired figures by gender
  • class archetype depicted by gender

(For a more detailed explanation of what I mean by these criteria, you can read my very first such study here – starting with the heading “Determining Methodology”.)

However, because of trends that I noticed flipping through books, I did make some modifications to my criteria and how I counted things. For instance, as there were a large number of illustrations where it was not possible to determine the gender of a given figure, I counted “humanoid figures without discernible gender” separately from male and female figures.

One thing that I also noticed while flipping through the books is that there seemed to be a marked difference in representation between group shots (shots with multiple figures) and shots with only one character; as such I looked at the gender-breakdown of single-character shots as well as group shots that contained male figures and group shots that contained female figures.

Results and Analysis

Looking at such a wide variety of criteria across three books means that I wound up with four pages of hand-written tallies, numbers, and notes. So this section gets a bit chart-happy[1]. Do bear with me.

Base Demographics

As previously mentioned, my fear that women would turn out to not be as well-represented as I had thought they would be was supported by the actual data once I started counting things. (Although interestingly, I will note that one trend that held almost universally across each of the criteria that I examined was that representation was almost always best in the PHB, worst in the Monster Manual, and about halfway in between in the DMG.)

Gender-Breakdown

As positively as I had remembered the representation of women in the PHB being, it turns out that female figures accounted for only 30% of figures. The DMG did almost as well, but not quite, with female figures accounting for 26% of all figures, while the Monster Manual was clearly the worst with only 19% female representation.

However, specifically with regard to the PHB… It is true that ungendered figures make up only 7% of all figures, and if these are not included in the overall tally the percentage of female representation does increase. But given that ungendered figures represent a much larger portion of the total number of figures in the DMG and MM, it seemed important to retain this as a separate category.

Now overall, these figures tell a compelling story, but something that occurred to me when I was flipping through the books for a second time[2]. It seemed to me as if the women were being better represented in group shots than they were in single-character illustrations – as if when it came to group and environment scenes it was a no-brainer most of the time for artists to say to themselves “well I gotta make sure I include at least one woman in here”, but when it came to single-character illustrations that the default impulse to depict a man was largely going unquestioned.

And again, the data largely supports that impression:

Group-No-Women

Group-By-Gender

Single-Character-By-Gender

In both the DMG and PHB, only approximately a third of all multi-character illustrations did not contain women. Which, let me just say is still an atrocious total. If women are 1/2 of the population, it’s pretty terrible when 30% of your environment shots don’t actually reflect that – especially since I wasn’t actually counting the gender balance in each group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

The Monster Manual is a bit harder to draw conclusions about, given that there are only 11 multi-character illustrations in the entire book. However, I’m inclined to say a 2-to-9 ratio is pretty obviously terrible, even given the small sample size. Especially when you consider that the lack of representation is just as bad in the Monster Manual’s single-character illustrations.

The last bit of demographic information I looked at was class archetype:

Class-Archetype

In fantasy and gaming artwork, it’s still an unfortunately common stereotype to see men depicted overwhelmingly as fighters and women overwhelmingly depicted as mages. Because of course it is the job of the big strong mans to hit things with swords while the women stand safely in the back and twiddle their fingers. [sigh]

This is perhaps the one area where the DMG can be said to have clearly done better than the PHB, because the balance of character archetype depiction by gender was the closest to even in the DMG. With regards to the depiction of fighters, the imbalance in the PHB is disappointingly large – with 61% of all fighters in the PHB being depicted as male and a measly 22% being explicitly gendered as female. Whereas the Monster Manual once again comes in dead last with a whopping 82% of all fighters being depicted as male.

Style of Depictions

The second set of numbers collected were intended to convey data about the differences in how men were depicted versus women. However, the only numbers that wound up being even sort of clear-cut were the numbers regarding active poses versus neutral poses:

Active-Verus-Neutral

The Player’s Handbook had the closest to an even split of active and neutral poses, which I found hugely encouraging. However, things start getting a bit confusing with the DMG – women are actually more likely to be depicted as active than men. And in the Monster Manual, despite that the illustrations in the MM were clearly the worst about portraying women, the numbers of active versus neutral poses are again pretty close to an even split.

Things got even more confusing when I started looking at the results of my tallies of fully-covered and suggestively attired characters. After going through each book so many times, the impression that I got was that the most thought had been put into balancing depictions of women in the PHB, a bit less thought had gone into balancing the DMG, and that the Monster Manual had been very much “business as usual” as far as the artists were concerned.

But the numbers that I collected didn’t tell that story at all:
Fully-Covered

Suggestively-Attired

Looking at the gender ratios for both fully-covered (characters shown as being covered from neck to ankle and shoulder to wrist) and suggestively attired (characters with either portions of exposed torso or exposed portions of upper thigh) characters, the numbers collected make it appear as though depictions are pretty evenly balanced across all three books. However in all of the PHB, there were only 6 illustrations that I outright rolled my eyes of, whereas I just plain wanted to chuck half of the monster manual in the garbage for how bullshit it’s treatment of women is.

It’s about more than just numbers

I suspect that a large portion of the reason behind this is my decision to include ungendered figures in my counts for the first time; that is probably throwing off my results in ways I haven’t figured out how to account for yet. This in combination with the fact that how I define “suggestively attired” and “fully covered” and how consistently I apply these definitions are intended to over-correct for the difference in depiction, since my own personal bias is admittedly… pretty strong.

For example, in doing such posts in the past, I almost always end up with at least a few corpses counted as suggestive. Often I end up with (male) animal people who are clearly intended to be seen as “bestial” rather than alluring. And once I wound up counting a zombie that had been turned into furniture as suggestive.

So it’s important to point out that the numbers will only get you so far – especially when what is being discussed is something as inherently hard to quantify as art. So, as I’ve already put an inordinate amount of work into putting this post together and it’s getting pretty long, that will be what we take a look at next time.

I should note that all of these charts were made using Infogr.am – since Excel’s chartmaker makes ugly, hard-to-read charts. Sadly, Infogr.am’s embed code doesn’t get along with WordPress.com’s interface and I wound up having to cobble things together on their own

 As it turns out, because I wasn’t exactly sure how I needed to change my criteria around, I wound up going through each book and doing detailed counts FOUR TIMES. Ugh.

Kat Jones’ Revived: “Zombies are a metaphor for everything”

One of the things that I was most looking forward to about this year’s GenCon was the chance to play lots of LARPs (freeform roleplaying LARPs that is, not WoD or boffer LARP), and that hope was realized in full. I played in no less than four LARPs, but without a doubt my favorite was Kat Jones’ Revived. It was was smart, compelling, and intense. But more importantly, the issues that came up in play mirrored so many of the conversations that I had at the convention surrounding issues of diversity that I found myself chewing over the game for a good week afterward, processing what I had gotten out of it.

So today I’m going to be writing about Revived, what made it so compelling, and why it’s an excellent tool for illustrating privilege to the “uninitiated” (as it were). Before we get started, however, I’ll note that Revived is currently in external beta-testing, to be released at a later date (you can contact her here for details, website forthcoming in the future). If you’d like to see more of Kat’s work, you can find the much-more-light-hearted There’s a Fanfic For That here. (It does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.)

Premise: Zombies as a metaphor for literally anything

On the face of it, the premise sounds a bit absurd – in Revived you all play members of a zombie support group. But as the success of media properties like iZombie, In the Flesh, and Warm Bodies demonstrate, zombie fiction where zombies themselves are the protagonists and not just shambling nameless horrors is fertile ground for rich, dramatic storytelling.

The setup of Revived most resembles In The Flesh[1], in that there has been an outbreak of zombie-plague which wreaked havoc, but a cure was found and zombies are now simply normal people with a chronic condition that needs managing. However, characters in In The Flesh – which is naturally set in the UK – where there is universal healthcare. Whereas Revived takes place in the United States, where issues of inequality of access to healthcare make the premise instantly more complex, and forces players to be much more socially aware. To be fair, In The Flesh does touch on issues of inequality, such as assimilation, passing-privilege, and acceptance movements like Pride. But adding in the extra complication of unequal access to care has the potential to put every type of inequality on the table, depending on what the players are interested in tackling. Because, as Kat pointed out to us in the setup, zombies can be a metaphor for everything.

Now because there are so many widely varying, and often mutually exclusive, tropes surrounding zombies, before play we all worked together to create a “FAQ” about zombies. Ostensibly, this was to ensure that everyone is starting on the same page, but it didn’t take long for us to veer from “how zombies behave and think” into “systemic injustices that zombies have to deal with”. And that is the real brilliance of Revived; in a typical convention game it would be typical to have mostly or entirely white and cisgender players. In such a group of gamers, an overt conversation about privilege and systemic injustice would probably go… badly. (To say the least.) But through the lens of a game about the real-life struggles of zombies? Players can feel free to explore otherwise forbidding territory, because of the familiarity of the tropes involved.

Revived
Here’s what our “FAQ” looked like, minus a few notes added in Act 2.

In play: Exploring intersectionality with zombies

In our game, the setup wound up looking pretty bleak once we were through with it. Some of the major setting elements we came up with to start with:

  • There are two types of drugs needed to manage the “condition” – antivirals and antimicrobials (to prevent decay). The government provides antivirals to all sufferers free of charge, but antimicrobials are expensive and not covered by most insurance plans.
  • Many conservative religious groups actively advocate against “zombie rights” and religiously motivated violence against zombies is common
  • Only 2 states have protections for zombies in hate crime legislation, whereas Arizona (which, due to its climate, has seen a huge influx of zombies) is developing a registry
  • The zombie rights movement is splintered, with political activists, militant activists, and violent extremists all disagreeing on the best way to fight injustice.

And it got even bleaker in play thanks to the characters we saw in play: (my character) a homeless Mexican kid whose parents had declared him an abomination and thrown him out when he tried to come home, an “undocumented” zombie struggling to pass as living while navigating the difficulties of undocumented life in the US, and a zombie cop trying to do his job despite persecution from his fellow cops and lack of access to antimicrobials.

Of course, the foil for all of these characters is the facilitator character (or “counter player”) – the woman in charge of the support group. She is also a zombie, but has been essentially adopted by the state and is having all of her housing and medical needs provided, including antimicrobials. Of course, this means that she’s almost entirely insulated from the injustices that the other characters face, which makes her the White Feminist[2] of the post-zombie world.

Interestingly, however, it didn’t turn out to be the three players versus the counter player in terms of conflict. (Or rather, it didn’t until the very end.) The differing privileges of the three characters meant that they conflicted with each other in ways that highlighted intersectionality in fascinating ways. I clashed with the undocumented character over my refusal to assimilate or even attempt to “pass” as living. The zombie cop in some ways was the most powerful, given his position as a cop, but was also the most affected by the illness, as the only one without access to some form of antimicrobial – which meant that he was the one highlighting issues around disability and access. And no one could agree on what the best approach was with the living to best achieve progress be it civil disobedience, militant activism, violent resistance, pride movements, or appeasement.

In the end, each of our characters – even the facilitator character – wound up crushed by systemic injustice. My character was homeless and living under the radar due to his activities as a militant activist for zombie pride and illegal dealer of street antimicrobials. The zombie cop was weeks away from total disability due to lack of access to antimicrobials, that is if he didn’t first get tossed into the industrial shredder the police used to dispose of “ferals” and zombie malcontents. The undocumented character was trapped in a system that didn’t recognize his rights as a human being and ended up on a watch list for potentially “non-compliant” zombies – a one way ticket to resettlement in a feral compound, a trip through the shredder, or worse. And the facilitator character saw her one chance at government-sponsored change crumble, due to the failure of her pilot program, not to mention the potential loss of coverage and housing.

Post-Game reflections

Revived wound up being a very strange experience for me, in that playing my character was very much informed by the bullshit I’ve had to deal with as a result of my feminism while simultaneously allowing me to access an experience (however vicariously) of oppression that I will never face. As a white, cishet, able-bodied middle-class Christian, I will never have to worry about passing, or pressure to stay closeted, or dysphoria, or assimilation, or racialized violence – and yet all of these were things that wound up being very important to my character.

The things I found myself getting most angry about – assimilation, pride, refusing to feel guilty about my identity – were issues that I will never have to fight against in my daily life. But the language that I used was very much the language of intersectional feminism that I try to practice here on my blog, and the frustration that I felt felt toward the other characters felt incredibly familiar. I found myself saying things like “it is not my job to educate you”, “you do not get to prioritize your feelings over actual injustice”, “I refuse to not express anger about my lived experience of injustice”, “you do not get cookies for being a decent fucking human being”, and “this is about the radical idea that I am a person who deserves to exist” – all things I have actually said in conversations about feminism on the internet.

All in all, it was a strange and eye-opening experience, even (or perhaps especially) for someone who devotes a lot of time to writing about these issues. I sincerely wish there was some way to make this required material for all gamers, because this was hands-down the best and most accessibly illustration of privilege that I have yet experienced.

[1] If you haven’t seen In The Flesh, I can’t recommend it enough – even if you’re normally not a fan of zombies. It is amazingly compelling and hard-hitting and is just wonderfully acted.
[2] Please note that I say this as a feminist who is white; there is a difference between feminists who are white and White Feminists.

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!)

WTF, WotC? Your art direction is confusing.

The dilemma: two product lines, two art direction styles, one company

One of the things that has long been a source of irritation for me is the inconsistent art direction of Wizards of the Coast’s two major game products – Magic: The Gathering and D&D.  It strikes me as weird that M:TG and D&D are both product lines owned and operated by WotC, and yet they have such wildly different approaches to art direction. (To be honest, it seems like a bit of a branding issue to me, but then what the hell do I know. I’m just an indie publisher.)

This has become top-of-mind recently for a few reasons. First, despite both of us being Magic: The Gathering fans, my husband follows the design and spoiler blogs much more closely than I do. (In that he reads them and I don’t.) So he tends to show me previews of art that he knows I will either find hilarious or objectionable. (Or both.) Recently, he’s been showing me a lot more of the latter, alas.

Second, as I prepare for this year’s GenCon, I keep thinking about last year and how the release of D&D 5th Edition wound up being a pretty big deal for me – despite that I still have not purchased any 5E products or even played the game. I got to have lunch with Mike Mearls and discuss the future direction of D&D and D&D art direction – something which was way encouraging.

And everything that I’ve seen, at least observing from a distance, coming out of the new D&D line has been pretty great and inclusive! Like check out these illustrations that come from the starter set:

STARTUP ILLOS

Pretty awesome, right? Fully clothed female characters that have personality, agency, and aren’t pointlessly objectified. And there’s lots more examples of this sort of thing!

Which, again, is baffling when you consider that Magic… Magic can’t decide what the hell it’s doing – if they want to do better by women, or exclude them, or have more of them but sexier, or just go back to their old awful ways and forget about trying to improve their depictions of women at all. As someone who has only seriously gotten into Magic in the last two years, it’s been weird and off-putting to watch.

So while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, it’s something that has bothered me sufficiently that I thought it would be worth taking a look at what Magic has been up to recently that has been getting under my skin.

M:TG’s recent art direction: I call shenanigans

I’ve written in the past about how I find the trend toward better art in Magic expansions to be (mostly) encouraging. Particularly in Khans of Tarkir – there were some really great illustrations of non-sexualized powerful women doing fantastically gonzo awesome shit! However, while Khans may have done much better in cutting down on the bullshit sexism, they did so at the cost of actually – yannow – depicting any women.

Still. I was hopeful that the overall trend of not fucking up at depicting women might continue! But alas, no joy.

First there came Magic: Origins – a core set focused on, well, the origins of the planeswalkers – characters that are meant to be player avatars. Being a core set, there are often a lot of reprinted cards, which tends to mean reprints of old art. So it’s not surprising that some old awful art (like the boobplate sideboob in Act of Treason) is sneaking through. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of brand-new awful to be found – particularly with their treatment of female planeswalkers.

See, planeswalkers in Magic: Origins are actually double-sided. They start out as a Legendary Creature, then when they meet a certain condition you turn them over and they become a planeswalker. In theory, pretty cool, right? You get a chance to see and play with familiar planeswalkers in their pre- and post-planeswalker states. The problem is, as always, the execution. Take, for example, Liliana – one of Magic’s oldest female planeswalkers. Liliana is a pretty classic example of the evil woman who is evil because she is sexay (or maybe she is sexay because she is evil?). But somehow WotC dug deep and found a way to make Liliana even worse:

liliana-origins

On the left, you see Liliana in her pre-planeswalker state. That’s right, young, innocent, demure, and not even remotely sexual. On the right is the art for Liliana once she becomes a planeswalker – definitely one of the more sexual Liliana’s that I’ve seen. Because women with power are evil and evil women are sexy. Or something.

Sadly, it’s not unique to Liliana – whose color is black, which has always been the color of “evil”. Nissa Revane doesn’t fare any better, and she is plain old green. Just like Liliana, she gets to wear clothes when she’s not a planeswalker, but then as soon as she’s a planeswalker? BOOM. CLEAVAGE WINDOW.

What the ever loving fuck, Magic? Are you trying to say that women can only have power so long as they are sexually pleasing to a (presumed) straight male viewer? Because that’s pretty fucked up, especially for a game that claims to be friendly for children.

It gets even worse when you look at more fringey M:TG products that WotC is working on releasing, like Modern Masters – a limited edition set that will be reprinting some of the most popular cards that have fallen out of legality with the standard format. These are just straight up reprints of old cards with old art, which means that there is some extra shitty sexist cards like these gems:

MODERN MASTERS

Man, that woman in Blades of Velis Vel is possibly the most Liefeld-ian piece of Magic art that I have ever seen – obscured hands and feat, impossibly thin torso, improbable levels of spine arch, and ridiculous 90s-ish costume. All it needs is some AWSUM POUCHES!!1! to complete the ensemble.

Meanwhile, Indomitable Angel is both weird and baffling. Is she wearing armor, or is she actually made of metal and is just naked? Does she actually have an 8-pack? What is up with her shoulders? Are those actually attached to her boobs? Does she have metal boob-pauldrons? WHY ARE BOOB-PAULDRONS EVEN A THING??

But even Indomitable Angel isn’t as confusing as Fiery Fall. It took a solid two minutes of staring at it for me to even figure out what was going on until I realized that it was a human woman falling upside down so that the artist could get in both upskirt AND underboob without the unwanted effort of trying to squeeze in humanizing details like a face. Because who cares about portraying her as a person about to meet a grim fate so long as we can ogle her tits before she messes them up by falling into lava?

Ugh. Just ugh.

But for me, the shit icing on the shit cake are these two card previews taken from From the Vault: Angels – a limited edition 15 card set reprinting old angels. 5 out of the 15 cards are even getting new art, which I would normally take as an encouraging sign! That is until my husband showed me these:

AKROMA-NEW

Nope. That’s not old artwork, folks. That’s NEW artwork. New artwork which took the old character designs and faithfully translated them into something just as bad, or possibly even a bit worse than the old art:

AKROMA-OLD
I KNOW that I prefer the old Angel of Wrath to the new art. Sure the boobplate is just as stupid and obvious phallic symbol is still obvious and phallic. But at least the old art doesn’t make her look like she’s five seconds away from humping the damn sword. As for the Angel of Fury, I go back and forth. It’s definitely artist that the artist got lazy when it came to the not-sexy bits – obscured hands and feet anyone? But at least the old art looks like she’s actually doing something – namely flying. Whereas the new art shows her… uh… vamping? Power posing? I’m not really sure what, to be honest.

Conclusion: I don’t know what the fuck to think

So all of this nonsense has left me feeling very conflicted about the state of Magic: The Gathering and whether I want to continue supporting it with my dollaz. I enjoy the occasional sealed-pack event, which is pretty much how I’ve acquired most of my collection. And despite the problems that the Magic division of WotC seems to have with not actually failing at depicting women, I was willing to cut them some slack given that things overall seemed to (slowly) be getting better. But given the amount of eye-rolling I’ve done lately, I’m starting to question my willingness to continue turning a blind eye.

Seriously – I get that it can be difficult to change the direction of a flagship product as large and entrenched as Magic: The Gathering. But the knowledge and experience on how to do so already exists IN THEIR OWN DAMN COMPANY. Someone on the Magic team needs to pick up the damn phone and have a serious conversation with the art team for D&D already.

(As for myself, this has me regretting that I didn’t keep all my old data on art from Magic sets for previous posts about Magic on this blog. I know it would be quite the undertaking, but I’m thinking it could be pretty interesting (if incredibly time-consuming) to compile numbers for every set for the last three or so years so as to be able to have some real numbers regarding trends.)

The importance of good art direction

So the big secret project that I’ve been working on has had me thinking about the importance of good art direction in tabletop games recently. Good art direction can make an already fun game compelling and engage new audiences. However, even art direction that is simply mediocre can have the opposite effect by alienating potential customers before they even get a chance to explore what your game is about.

There are a lot of things that go into what makes for good art direction – is the art well-crafted? Is it relevant to the game you’re trying to sell? Is it evocative and inspiring? Does it reflect the play experience you are trying to create? All of these are important goals to strive for in good art direction. But just as important, and sadly almost universally overlooked by major game publishers, is overall inclusiveness of artwork. And I say this not as a feminist culture critic, but as a game publisher.

The reason tabletop RPGs are so art-heavy is because good art sells more games. Quality art by artists capable of doing professional-looking work is not cheap, and acquiring art assets is expensive both in terms of dollars and time spent. Companies like WotC, Paizo, and the rest are ultimately in it for the profit, even if individual employees might happen to be passionate about the medium; they wouldn’t go through the tremendous hassle of procuring such large numbers of art assets if it weren’t ultimately profitable to do so.

By that metric, inclusiveness is every bit as important as craft or any of the other common standards of what makes for good art direction. I can’t tell you the number of times my very first exposure to a game has been through some piece of bullshit sexist art – usually a cover or promo image – that has completely turned me off ever wanting to purchase or otherwise support the game[1]. Given that women account for nearly half of tabletop gamers, this is a pretty huge failure of art direction. Good art direction should only ever expand your potential audience, not eliminate potential customers right off the bat – especially when those potential customers account for nearly half of your market.

The problem is that good inclusive art direction can be a lot more challenging than it looks. Even if you have a design and development team who want to create an inclusive product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be stereotype-free. The sheer number of illustrations that most finished games contain means that most development teams will be working with multiple artists. Each artist will bring their own entrenched attitudes and biases, and none of the artists will be looking at the overall picture, so without a concerted effort to keep an eye on the big picture even a well-intentioned development team can wind up simply replicating the industry standard in terms of unfortunately stereotyped art.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at two of the most common pitfalls that get in the way of inclusive game art.

Obstacle the first: Defaultism

First, defaultism is a bit of a tricky thing to define, so I’m going to quote the excellent Strix:

Defaultism is the idea that we fall back on the status quo when something is not defined. We go with what is most familiar and “normal.” White Americans are a little over two-thirds of the population, but the vast majority of our media is dominated by this demographic, not just in games, but movies, TVs shows, and books. Because of the primacy of white characters in media, if a character is not explicitly stated to be of a different race they are often assumed to be white. Similar problems arise with gender expectations and sexual orientation. … Most gamers unconsciously gravitate to the straight white male as our hero, our role model, and the baseline for play. — Whitney Strix Beltrán

(Really you should read Strix’s entire piece on Tor.com about defaultism, it’s quite wonderful.)

Given that the population of people working in professional game development skews overwhelmingly white and male, it shouldn’t be surprising that defaultism is a major problem in roleplaying games. Every numbers post I’ve ever done shows that across all sectors of gaming, depictions of men consistently outnumber depictions of women, and that when women are depicted they are often stereotyped in harmful ways. Defaultism at work, friends.

The problem with defaultism is that even when you’re aware that you have a problem and need to increase inclusiveness in your product line’s art, attempts to take action can have mixed results. Wizards of the Coast, the company behind both D&D and Magic: the Gathering, is a great example of this. With the new edition of D&D, WotC has done a fantastic job of making the new core books inclusive across both racial and gender lines. Unfortunately, the same can’t exactly be said of Magic.

While it’s true that recent expansions have gotten much better in terms of reducing the number of horribly stereotyped and objectified women, it’s also the case that the reduction in depictions of objectified women has probably directly resulted in a much lower number of female characters overall. Unfortunately, it seems that for a fair number of artists working on Magic, the priority is: 1) men 2) sexay wimmenz 3) men 4) non-objectified women with agency.

However, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to the team handling art direction for Magic! Many of the artists illustrating for them are artists they have worked with for years, with known habits, tendencies, and preferences. Given the extreme willingness of some Magic artists to throw card concepts to the wind in favor of sexay laydeez, it’s actually depressingly predictable that an effort by WotC to crack down on depictions of bullshit sexism would result in artists just saying “fine, I won’t draw women at all then”.

Thankfully, there is a way to get around this: always plan for the big picture! Rather than leaving variables like gender and race up to chance or the whim of your artists, make a master plan of all of the illustrations that will be needed for a given project and assign gender/race to each spec before handing out specs to artists. In all likelihood, it will feel silly the first time you plan a project this way. But the reality is that each of us carries biases and stereotypes that require conscious effort and planning to counter.

Of course, taking steps to counter defaultism will likely mean that you’ll encounter…

Obstacle the second: Rogue artists

A nontrivial subset of established game industry artists are men with, shall we say, entrenched views on how women should be illustrated[2].  And quite often, when these artists are handed a spec that calls for a female character, they will find a way to make that female character sexxay even if it makes no goddamn sense. I’ve taken to calling this Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, as the eponymous Wayne Reynolds is a goddamn master at sneaking cleavage into illustrations where the art spec clearly called for a woman who is strong, competent, and not sexualized:

Imrijka_360
Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds

(God dammit, Wayne.)

Now look, I understand that the idea of telling legendary artists like Wayne Reynolds to go back to the drawing board (see what I did there) when they hand in a sketch with sphereboobs and gratuitous cleavage can be off-putting. And sure, Wayne’s women might be overly sexualized, but at least they are also powerful and have a real sense of agency – and that’s no small thing, right?

But again, that is a failure in art direction. Is it extra work having to send drawings back to be revised? Absolutely! Can artists accustomed to drawing objectified women be truculent about making appropriate revisions? You bet! Is it a hassle to have to write emails saying things like “can we have this without ridiculous cleavage” or “please get rid of the nipples” or “give her pants and also make this less crotch-ular”? For sure! But guess what, if you’re responsible for art direction, it’s also your job.

Thankfully, while rogue artists can be an irritating to deal with, they don’t present an insurmountable hurdle. As the publisher, you have all of the power in the employer/employee relationship – artists work for you and not the other way around! When an artist hands you a draft that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t accept it. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive or embarrassed. Don’t make apologies or justifications, either. Simply be firm and say “this doesn’t meet our needs, these are the revisions that need to be made”. That’s why they call it art direction – you are there to provide directions for your artists.

Caveat: There are more obstacles to inclusive art direction than just these

…which should be obvious, right? One of the biggest problems with making game products that have truly inclusive art is the demographics of the industry and the terrible reality of privilege. Even with the best intentions, sometimes some nasty shit is going to slip right on through thanks to the effects of privilege. When harmful stereotypes don’t affect you, it can be really hard to see them even if you know you have to watch for them!

However, by taking steps to plan against defaultism and taking a firm hand with rogue artists, you will already have a huge leg up on the competition. Because the sad reality is that the bar is already so low that even a moderate attempt at inclusive art direction will still be a huge improvement over most of what’s already out there.

[1] Case in point: there are several people on my G+ talking up Smite right now. Apparently it’s solidly reliable fun! But with character design like this, there’s no fucking way I’m ever going to give it a chance.

[2] Although, honestly, there are a lot of amazing not-dude artists out there. And while there are women who do pinup style artwork as their primary focus, generally I’ve found that female artists tend to be a lot more receptive to not automatically sexualizing all female characters.

Now on YouTube: Lady Event Organizer Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hangout

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

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

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

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

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

Using games to promote empathy, and related thinks

[Edit to add July 2020: I am leaving this post up because it covers some important topics. But I feel it’s important to mention that Drew abused me and others, and I don’t wish to be seen as promoting his games or boosting his reputation. You can read my account of that experience here.]

[This is a terrible title, but it’s the best I could come up. I hate titles.]

I started writing this post because I recently played a game that made me bored, and I enjoyed it. And then I played it again, and this time it made me bored and made me cry, and that time it was even better. And what’s more? I’d totally play it again.

And that’s weird, right? Like what other medium would even lead someone to say that? Okay, so it’s not so weird that I enjoyed something that made me cry since I am a champion at crying at movies that no one else cries at. But actively enjoying being bored? Folks, I have some pretty extreme ADD – boredom is almost physically painful for me, and I will drop something like a hot rock if I get more than a little bored with it.

Even as a hard-core devotee of fantasy and sci-fi novels, where exposition infodumps are often part of the genre’s buy-in, I have a hard and fast rule that I will only read the first 75 pages of a novel and if it’s not interesting by then, I’ll stop reading. Similarly, I didn’t see Alien until a few years ago, and the first forty-five minutes of the movie were almost painful in how slow the pacing was – the only thing that kept me going was the nerd-shame of never having seen Alien in the first place. And even as a hardcore Joss Whedon fan[1], it took two attempts for me to get into Dollhouse. The first episode left me completely cold when it was on the air, and I wound up not actually watching it until it went up on Netflix.

So what gives? How is it that games have the ability to affect us in ways that would be seen as negative in other mediums and still create an experience that is seen as rewarding? And what does that say about our ability to use games as a medium to promote empathy by getting people to engage emotionally with ideas or stories they’d normally rather not think about?

Let’s back up and start from the beginning

So here’s what got me started thinking about all this stuff: I was lucky enough to help Andrew Medeiros playtest The Forgotten – a LARP that he is fine-tuning about civilians desperately trying to survive in a city under siege, based on the actual experiences of survivors of the siege of Sarajevo. The game itself is very simply structured: there are day scenes and night scenes. During the day, everyone is trapped inside because there are snipers everywhere and it is too dangerous to go outside. At night is when the survivors establish a guard and send people out to scavenge.

During the day scenes, often toward the beginning when things hadn’t gotten too bleak yet and we hadn’t had to make too many hard choices, the players wound up sitting around with seven or eight minutes to kill and no game tasks that needed doing, just waiting for the day to be over. And that time… got kind of boring. So we’d wind up reminiscing, or shooting the shit, or picking fights just for something to do, or even just staring at the wall and just wanting the day to be over already.

Later in the game when the bleakness had had a chance to ramp up, day scenes flew by, but everyone was stressed and frazzled. How would you use limited resources when there wasn’t enough to keep everyone alive? The game forced you to make decisions when the only decisions that could be made all fucking sucked – and sometimes made you feel like a bad person just for making the choice in the first place. And worst of all, sometimes (rarely, but it happened) during the night scenes the people that went out at night got killed by snipers. Which is a fucking gut punch, especially when (as happened in our second game) they’ve gone out to scavenge for supplies to save you and then… just don’t come back.

So the result this game that shouldn’t be enjoyable by any of the standards we would apply to other forms of media. By turns, it’s boring, stressful, and horribly agonizing – I jokingly described it as “punching yourself in the feels for two hours”. But the mechanics that produce these feelings create such a great story, and for a lot of people that’s what separates a good game from a bad one.

Which is awesome and exciting! Because if games can make otherwise painful or unpleasant experiences enjoyable, that opens up so many possibilities to tell the stories that get overlooked, or are even intentionally ignored – stories that are hard and painful and maybe a little traumatizing, and stories that challenge our personal beliefs as players and human beings.

Modeling more than just violence

Something that I’ve seen popping up more as a topic of conversation in the design circles that I inhabit is the problem of getting game designers to see game design as more than just building different types of violence simulation engines. A whole heap of brainpower gets devoted to modeling just about every type of violence imaginable. As a result, a lot of mainstream gaming just winds up producing games that let you play different flavors of murder hobos.

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 8.46.22 AM
(taken from Order of The Stick by Rich Burlew)

 

Fantasy murder hobos! Cyberpunk murder hobos! Steampunk murder hobos! Murder hobos in space! Mainstream gaming is a little bit addicted to murder hobos[2]. Thankfully, however, as games mature as an artform, we’re finally starting to expand the boundaries of mainstream gaming beyond simply “mostly murder hobo simulation”.

The indies, of course, have always been out there doing their own thing. I’ve written previously about how indie TRPG designers have managed to handle the issue of sex, sexuality, and relationships in a far more sophisticated manner than pretty much any AAA video game title out there. There are also a lot of smart and talented designers working in both tabletop/LARP design and in video games to expand the boundaries of what is traditionally considered to be a “game”, and in so doing are creating what might just be a new genre – empathy games.

In the past few years, games like Depression Quest; Papers, Please; and That Dragon, Cancer are increasingly becoming part of the conversation about the future direction of games. And while they’re still not doing business on a scale approaching anything close to the volume that the AAA video game industry puts out, the fact that Papers, Please – a game often described with words like “tedious”, “grim”, and “affecting” – had sold more than half a million copies as of March 2014 argues for an increasing appetite for games that provoke empathy.

Excitingly, the advent of incredibly accessible game development tools like Twine and Unity mean that new designers from traditionally unrepresented backgrounds are getting into game development and doing all sorts of new, compelling, and weird things with the medium.

As far as analog gaming goes, the future is a bit harder to predict. Tabletop gaming is a far, far smaller industry that employs far fewer people than the AAA video gaming industry, and the majority of tabletop gaming’s “mainstream” game lines could still arguably be called violence simulators. D&D, Pathfinder, World of Darkness – all of these are game lines that will devote hundreds of thousands of words in a book to modeling violence and either neglect or completely ignore rules that help model relationships, or empathy, or emotion – assuming that that will sort itself out in the fiction.

Of course, the tabletop gaming industry is also an industry far less dependent on its “mainstream” anchor companies. Indie trpg publishing has been around for a long time. And I’ll admit to some bias as someone who designs for tabletop and not video games, but it often seems to me that the conversation surrounding the design challenges of creating games centered around things other than violence is considerably advanced from that in the video game world, simply because creating these sorts of games hasn’t been marginalized as a fringe concern. (Or at least not to the degree that is the case in the video game world.) And maybe that’s because there’s a whole lot less money in analog gaming? It’s hard to say.

What I can say is that games like The Forgotten make me excited about the future of analog game design. I’ve been following analog design and designers for… well, a long time now. Long enough that I’ve watched some ideas previously dismissed as “hippie” or “indie” slowly creep into even the trad-est of trad games. As indie analog designers continue to create new ways of telling stories, those tools will inevitably creep into “mainstream” games.

Admittedly, the creep is… slow. And empathy games are certainly never going to replace violence simulators, because let’s face it – sometimes when you’ve had a really shitty day, it can feel therapeutic to sit down and shoot zombies in the face for a while. (Or aliens. Or demons. Whatever.) But could they become their own legitimate subgenre? Something without the weird stigma associated with things like Nordic LARP or American Freeform, games that people either dismiss or don’t see themselves as “brave” enough to play? I sure hope so.

[1] Yes, yes, I know he can be kind of awful, and his stuff is super problematic. I just can’t help but love it, though. (At least it’s not Game of Thrones.)
[2] And don’t get me wrong. I do love me some murder hoboing from time to time. I am greatly enjoying playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, which does have a fair amount of “quick, kill those guys! Because [mumblemumble] reasons!

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

One of the charges that routinely gets hurled at me is that I’m a sex-hating prude that hates sex in games and thinks that people who put sex in games are just the worst. Which is pretty ludicrous, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of dismissive criticism aside from “she’s crazy”, which means it’s something I hear a lot. For a lot of people, it’s easier to attack the messenger than it is to engage with the message, especially when the message is openly critical of something that you like.

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

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

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

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

good_depictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

loved-oh-snap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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