Publishing while female: 2 vignettes of bafflement, frustration, and humiliation [long]

Last time I wrote about the many and sundry reasons why it sucks being a female publisher, and how that suckitude is driving women out of publishing, and how the only way to fix the problem is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN, and it was a very difficult piece for me to write. The entire time I was writing it I was afraid that people would read it as sour grapes on my part and use that to dismiss what I was saying, because unfortunately my personal lack of success as a female publisher is of course the very thing that will most commonly be used to dismiss what I am saying when I try to talk about the lack of success of female publishers in general. So because I didn’t want what I was saying to be dismissed entirely out of hand, I worked very hard to keep that post’s tone more distant and less emotional – despite wanting nothing more than to yell my hyperbole-laden and profanity-laced anger at the internet.

As it turns out, wrestling with fear about how people will react to what you are saying while trying to perform a tone-balancing act is difficult and emotionally draining! (Amazing! Who’d have thought!) So it was nice that I did get some sympathetic commentary about my last post. Some.

But I also got dudes commenting on my Plus about how they “agreed” with what I was saying, but, well, you know. The kinds of games that they like to play are the kinds that are more likely to be produced by men, and WHAT COULD THEY POSSIBLY DO? It’s just too bad that the situation for female publishers is so messed up, and they want to do more, but HOW could they possibly make any personal contributions to changing things? HOW?

And let me tell you, that kind of willful helplessness in the face of what is a pretty damning and clear picture of how fucked things are in our hobby? It’s pretty goddamn frustrating having the biggest perpetrators respond with willful obliviousness while simultaneously trying to get credit for acknowledging that there is a problem and that they feel bad about it. “Wow. You’re right! This is terrible! It’s such a shame that this is all inevitable and that there is nothing more that can be done!”

… BRB, setting the world on fire.

You know what? Given that the wage gap is still DEFINITELY A THING (and actually getting worse here in Canada – so much for being a liberal community utopia), why don’t you men spend some of those extra 22-28 cents on the dollar on buying a game or two by women every now and then that you don’t actually want to play, just to show some support for women designers and publishers? You know, especially since you don’t have to worry about the extra gendered costs of inequal healthcare or products made for your gender or places to live.

JUST A THOUGHT.

So. Because my mostly dry, logical analysis didn’t seem to quite hit home for some people, let me attempt to put things in perspective by sharing two vignettes with you from my personal experience.

Case #1: The Starlit Kingdom, Andy Kitkowski, and Magical Girls

Andy Kitkowski, the brain behind Kotodama Heavy Industries (which is a game company, not a Japanese industrial company), has been doing pretty well with publishing translations of Japanese anime-themed RPGs for… quite a while now. Tenra Bansho Zero – the gonzo “throw literally every anime trope in a blender” game that I actually wrote Ruined Empire as a setting for – KickStarted for $129,000+; Ryuutama, a gentle and “heart-warming” game about traveling and adventure, KickStarted for $97,000+; and recently Shinobigami, a game which seems to be about schoolgirls having ninja battles (I admit to skimming the description on that one and going by the art, since it didn’t seem like my thing) just KickStarted for $87,000+. Even before KickStarter was a thing, I remember Andy going to GenCon and selling absurd numbers of copies of Maid RPG to anime fans who were dying to try out anime-themed roleplaying games. He pretty much created the market for English-language translations of Japanese, anime-themed tRPGs.

So I had all of that very much in mind when I first started developing The Starlit Kingdom. The Starlit Kingdom was inspired by the launch of a Sailor Moon reboot – Sailor Moon Crystal. There was a lot of excitement about that in my circles, and given that the idea seemed timely and that Andy had been doing quite well at publishing anime RPGs for several years, I figured than a game about magical girls as inspired by Sailor Moon would be a good investment in terms of time to eventual dollars returned. If even only a small number of the people who threw money at Andy to translate all sorts of anime-themed games bought copies of The Starlit Kingdom, it would still pay off since I was doing everything – from writing to playtesting to illustration to layout – myself. I might not make a lot of money, but certainly I’d make a nice little sum – enough to justify the effort, right?

Well…

I should have seen the writing on the wall at GenCon last year and just walked away.

You see, at GenCon in 2014, I ran 4 sessions of The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts (my light setting hack of the Shab al-Hiri Roach to take place in the Harry Potterverse) and sent more than 10 people over to the IPR booth to try to buy copies of a game that they hadn’t stocked because it’s so ancient. So in 2015, I was determined that I would run my own games and actually, you know, PROMOTE MY OWN WORK. Only… no one wanted to play my games. Out of the four 4-hour slots I was scheduled for, two of them didn’t happen due to lack of interest. The third, I wound up running the other game I was playtesting, and the fourth? Well, I did get to run The Starlit Kingdom. Once. BARELY. But it only happened because I ambushed another GM (a man) whose slot had also fallen through and begged him to play it with me so that I could run it for the one person I’d met at Games on Demand who actually wanted to play it. The con variant of TSK is supposed to run with four people. I made it work with 3.

Still, the game went so well and was so great, and both my players said that they had a ton of fun – even the male player who I’d had to beg to play, who admitted after that it wasn’t something he would have chosen to play on his own given the subject material. So, falsely encouraged, I went home and did more playtesting and spent time polishing, editing, rewriting, and illustrating the game before releasing it in November. To… crickets. (Fun little aside: To date, TSK has made half as much money as SexyTime Adventures: the RPG – which is silly, stupid parody game in which character creation involves paper dolls, and players are encouraged to get rerolls by making inappropriate pornface while narrating their actions.)

It took finishing and releasing the game, which I am still incredibly proud of, to make me realize the ugly truth: it doesn’t matter how much commercial appeal Sailor Moon has; no one wants to play a game about magical girls. Because, you know, cooties.

As you might imagine, this realization was hugely discouraging. As a result, I decided that I wasn’t willing to pour even more time and effort into trying to revive a game that had been such a dismal failure; maybe it could be done, but the amount of time and effort it would take could be spent more profitably on other endeavors. So I walked away from TSK and turned my attention to other things. That is, until it came time to do signups for GM slots for Dreamation; I wanted to get my badge comped, and I was reluctant to go back to running other peoples’ stuff, just because I didn’t have anything newer than The Starlit Kingdom that I wanted to try running. So I signed up to run TSK, since it was finished – hoping I could maybe move maybe one or two copies. Except this time I refined the pitch to remove anything that would signal “inspired by Sailor Moon” to an observer not already intimately acquainted with Sailor Moon.

This met with… moderate success. I got enough people to run one session of TSK; the other session, no one signed up for. The session I did get to run went very well! There were two women and two men, and the men were just as into the game, if not moreso, than the women. It was intense and emotional and hard-hitting and horrible in all the ways it was supposed to be, which was great!

But then, when we were finished, one of the male players – the one who had been not at all familiar with Sailor Moon – admitted that if he’d known that The Starlit Kingdom was a game about magical girls, he wouldn’t have signed up. He’d gotten the impression that TSK was a game about “space tragedy fantasy”, which is what interested him. And, you know, retroactively he was glad that he’d played and had fun and stuff – because actually enjoying a game about magical girls turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

And that moment right there killed the last vestiges of my willingness to promote the game, because how fucked is it that the only way to effectively promote my game is to pretend that it’s about SOMETHING ELSE. Especially when I KNOW that it succeeds at making men actually care about and enjoy playing a game that forces you to tell stories about powerful women? And when the reason that I wrote the game is because I have INCREDIBLY POWERFUL FEELS about the feminist value of Sailor Moon (and about magical girls as a genre) and the value of stories that depict heroic women working together and getting shit done while also being apologetically feminine, it really fucking hurts getting confirmation that the things that give me those POWERFUL FEELS are the very reasons why gamers don’t want to play The Starlit Kingdom.

And it makes me wonder, what is it about magical girls that people are so “uninterested” in exploring? Is it the idea of playing a story where most of the protagonists are necessarily women? Is it the idea of exploring stories that are marked as being “for girls”? Is it as simple as seeing a woman’s name on the cover of a game about women? I’ll never know, and that sucks.

Case 2: PLEASE SIRS, MAY I HAVE SOME LEGITIMIZING MALENESS?

As frustrating as the situation with The Starlit Kingdom is, that’s not nearly as humiliating and upsetting as an experience that I’ve been suffering through the last few weeks.

You see, I have an alpha draft for a game that I’m pretty sure would have a lot of commercial appeal… but not if I published it. And the numbers that I gathered on the statistics of KickStarter funding of roleplaying games support me in that assessment! By looking at both the statistics that I collected and also examining trends regarding the revenue earnings of various kinds of games KickStarters, I determined that a medium-sized game studio could gross 4-5 times more than I would be able to make if I were to attempt KickStarting the game on my own. And when I showed my numbers to other (male) friends who do game publishing, they agreed with my assessment!

I decided that what I needed was a publishing partner that was:

  1. not a huge company that would screw me out of my IP and keep the lion’s share of the profits for themselves
  2. a company that I had either worked with before or knew enough by reputation to trust their ethics
  3. published the same kind of games that I was writing and…
  4. could confer legitimizing maleness

As you might imagine, that set of criteria rather severely limited my options – there ended up being only 2.5 publishing companies that fit all of the criteria. (The third company mostly didn’t fit #3, but sorta did? A little?) It was not at all encouraging, but still. I put on my grown-up pants, polished the alpha draft of my game into something professional-looking, wrote up a business proposal showcasing the commercial viability of the game that I wanted to publish, and started approaching potential publishing partners.

…who have all officially turned me down.

And to be fair, each of the companies that I approached had legit business reasons for not accepting my proposal. Publishing-Me understood and agreed with the reasons that each of the companies laid out (and each company did have different reasons) for why it didn’t make sense to work with me on that project. CREATOR-Me, however… Creator-Me has spent a lot of the last few weeks crying and trying to deal with rejection in a calm, competent, professional manner that wouldn’t result in any burned bridges while dealing with a whole lot of harsh, ugly feels.

Firstly, it is incredibly, profoundly depressing that I can prove with numbers that female publishers operate at a disadvantage in terms of net profits as compared to their male publishing peers. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, have been publishing games since 2008, and have freelanced for some of the biggest companies in the industry – Green Ronin, Onyx Path, and Wizards of the Coast. But knowing that none of that matters, that no amount of hard work and hustle will overcome the gender penalty that female publishers operate under in the current publishing landscape… it makes it hard for me to feel pride in my abilities and accomplishments as a game designer and publisher. Worse, it is incredibly humiliating having to go hat-in-hand to male-led publishing companies, present my research findings calmly and clearly, and ask in perfectly calm and neutral tones for them to confer some legitimizing maleness on my project while also trying to convince them that there are good business reasons to want to do so. Because doing so requires admitting that no matter how hard I try, without a male business partner I am never going to be anything other than a third-rate micropublisher.

And getting the rejections themselves? …there is so much that I want to say about how that felt that I don’t know how to assemble into a clear picture. All I have is fragments.

Like crying in a school computer lab, my hands shaking and a friend patting my shoulder as I typed calm and professional-sounding assurances that I understood their situation and didn’t bear them any ill-will, because of course this was business. Or being terse and distant with my husband when he was trying to get me to talk about what was wrong, and then crying over the dishes when he got me to open up. Or crying on a friend’s shoulder and feeling ashamed that I couldn’t just act like a damn grownup and get over the disappointment already. (And of course, the fact I can’t stop crying about these disappointments makes me feel like a fake and a failure, because crying is for girls and if I was a “real” publisher, I would be able to roll with the punches and move on. THERE’S NO CRYING IN GAME DESIGN. See how that works?)

This leaves me trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this game that I still believe in. The last thing I want is to invest hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into developing, writing, testing, and publishing a full-length game only to have it fail as badly as all of my recent projects have. But without a male-fronted publishing partner, what options do I have?

Publishing under a male name? That’s all well and good for someone just getting started, but what about the 8 years of work that I’ve done as a game designer? I have an established reputation, no matter how small. Walking away from that would be cutting my nose off to spite my face. Do I give up and walk away? Even knowing that this is the most commercially friendly idea I’ve had in a very long time? Do I find, as some of my female friends put it, a KickBeard – a Totes Legit Male Micropublisher willing to put his name on the cover and promote it as a project he’s associated with (despite having nothing to do with development) in exchange for a tiny percent of the profits? It would increase my profits, but inevitably some people would see it as “his” game, no matter how open he is about his lack of actual involvement in writing and development.

I honestly have no fucking idea what I’m going to do. All I know is that I am TIRED. I am tired of beating my head against this wall and it not moving. I am tired of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and FAILING and NEVER having any hope that next time will be different. I am SO FUCKING TIRED that sometimes all I want to do is lie down and never get up again, because men get to “fail forward” and “find fruitfulness in failure”, but all women get is ground down, chewed up, and spat out. It makes me want to give up, throw my hands in the air, and quit altogether. Except I’ve been painted into this corner by own small amount of never-quite-enough-to-survive-on success, and I don’t have any damn choice but to keep trying, because all of the other options I’m faced with are even worse.

Even now, writing this. My throat feels tight, my eyes tingle, and my teeth are clenched. I am in mourning for the me that never got to exist – the me that was a “real” publisher, and who was able to build her audience such that she could stop falling into a series of abusive dead end jobs and realize her dream of being creative full time. But no amount of blood, sweat, and tears is going to bring that me into existence, and so it’s time to let her go.

So to those of you who “feel bad” that the games you like “just happen” to be made by men and there’s “nothing” you can really do about that? Why don’t you stick that in your pipe and smoke it?

KickStarter Part 2: The Only Way to Fix the Problem is to BUY GAMES BY WOMEN

Okay, folks. Today’s post is a 301-level post, in that it builds on a lot of things that I’ve written previously here. I know I’m shooting myself in the foot in terms of expecting anyone to read this by linking to a bunch of stuff right off the bat, but…

So here goes.

In the past, I’ve written about

Importantly, I’ve also written about the statistics of crowdfunding while female for both Patreon and KickStarter – although looking back I can see that my stats for Patreon were not as in-depth as I would like. (I may go back and correct that, but probably not.)

Everything I write here in this post is going to be predicated on the assumption that you have read those posts, or at least understand the concepts that I’ll be addressing. If I get any questions or comments referencing something covered in one of the above posts, I’m going to moderate your comment.

Again, this is NOT a 101-level post, so fair warning.

WHY IT SUCKS TO BE A FEMALE GAME DESIGNER/PUBLISHER: A SUMMARY

One of the classes I’m taking, now that I’ve gone back to community college (Canadians call it “college, which confuses the shit out of me, still), is Operations and Supply Chain Management. I never expected to get much out of it, but surprise! I am. And one of the things that we’ve spent A LOT of time on is various types of flow charts, or “process charts”. Which is sort of what I’m starting with here.

…so to tl;dr everything I just linked to in the most reductive way possible, if you are a female game designer and/or publisher, you will face the following barriers to designing, producing, and publishing your own games:

  • lack of community support (passive): fewer reshares of promotional posts on social media, less “buzz” around the development of projects you are working on, etc etc
  • lack of community support (active): gate-keeping, misogynist backlash against your games because… reasons (it’s a thing folks, it really is), marginalization of your work as “for women” or “niche”, etc etc
  • internal cognitive: especially Imposter Syndrome – this one is the biggest
  • practical realities of being a woman, and miscellaneous RL shit: the wage gap, second shift labor that disproportionately affects women, losing emotional/mental bandwidth to having to deal with microaggressions on a daily basis

If you struggle and persevere and actually start publishing games, you will attract:

  • less community buzz/support: Yes I listed it twice. It’s that important. Buzz translates into post-crowdfunding sales. Without it, you can’t expect anything substantive with regard to post-campaign sales
  • fewer backers/patrons: which when combined with less support leads directly to
  • fewer long term sales and lower overall revenue

These factors translate directly into:

  • women designers having to set lower goals and take on less ambitions projects: which is itself an ugly catch 22, because over time this perpetuates an unconscious view of women designers are people who make scrappy little games and niche projects and men as designers capable of pulling down the big bucks ($50,000+). Look at all of the $200,000+ RPG KickStarters in the past two years. It’s not a coincidence that every single one of them was fronted by a man.
  • projects by women designers attaining their goals with much lower margins of success (which is stressful): look, I’ve done it. I didn’t think Ruined Empire was going to fund, to be honest. It’s stressful, and it sucks, and that stress was the main reason why I didn’t do a KickStarter in 2015.

Over time, this has long-term consequences:

  • Women become less active or simply produce less over time: You can’t afford to produce what you won’t get paid for. Designing for the “passion” or “the love of the hobby” just doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about something that takes as much work as designing games
  • Talented and amazing women leave the hobby: Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat leaving tabletop gaming, or Leigh Alexander leaving video gaming are just two of my least favorite depressing examples of this. Not everyone is as amazingly hard-headed and contrary as I am, and that’s mostly a good thing, because sometimes choosing to leave is the only objectively sane course of action.
  • Women become 2nd class designers: Women resign themselves to being 2nd class designers who write freelance for larger projects on which they won’t earn any royalties (this is distressingly common), or who write small games that might make a couple hundred here or there, but nothing else

All of which translates into A PAY GAP FOR FEMALE GAME DESIGNERS. And unless you ACTUALLY BELIEVE that men just do better work than women, that is a problem, not just for the women but for the hobby itself. Because logically, if male game designers aren’t better at game design than women, it means there are a whole lot of amazing games that could change the face of the hobby entirely that just won’t ever get written, because women don’t have the time, energy, and bandwidth to write them.

The only way to fix this is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN

It doesn’t matter if you personally buy games by women. I mean, of course YOU do, gentle reader, because you’re lovely and progressive and are invested in the betterment of the hobby and all that. Now be quiet and don’t interrupt.

Look, the numbers are stark, and the only conclusion that can be drawn is as bleak as it is inescapable: as a community, WE ARE NOT BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN.

Obviously that needs to change. So what can you, personally, do? Well…

1) TAKE A HARD LOOK AT WHO YOU FOLLOW AND HOW YOU BUY GAMES

First, look at your social media: Who is in your circles on G+? Who do you follow on FB/Twitter? What is the breakdown of the space where you go to talk about games? How many women are in those spaces?

Second, look hard at who are the designers whose work you follow most closely? How many of those designers are women?

Third, look really hard at how much money do you give to men versus how much to women? (I’ll admit that I’m not so great about this, myself. My personal games collection is hugely unbalanced, and I don’t feel great about that.)

Note that I am NOT saying “don’t buy games by men”. FFS, that’s some straw-manning bullshit, so don’t even do that shit.

What I am saying is this: if the if the people you talk about games with are mostly white dudes, expand your circles to include more people who aren’t white dudes.

If the designers you follow are mostly white dudes, start following designers who aren’t white dudes.

If the people you buy games from are mostly white dudes, try to buy more games from people who aren’t white dudes.

I’m not saying that you’ll reach perfect parity overnight, but being aware that your spending is skewed isn’t enough. You need to actively look for ways to support projects by women.

2) PROMOTE WOMEN’S WORK

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had what I felt like was a solid, appealing project and tried to promote it and gotten… crickets.

This goes DOUBLE for you, whites dudes with community “cred”. Your word carries more weight than mine ever will, because that’s how bullshit identity politics work. You may not like it, you may not want to hear it, but it’s the truth.

3) MAKE GENDER A TIPPING POINT

How many times have you thrown money at a game you know you probably won’t ever play but want to read? Shit, I’ve done it. I’ve got half a shelf of game books that looked appealing but I knew I probably wouldn’t play, and most of them are by men.

Make “IS IT BY A WOMAN” part of that calculus. If you’re not sure if you want to buy a thing, and it looks interesting but you’re not sure if you’ll play it, check the gender of the author. And if it’s by a woman, and you have the money to spare anyway, consider actually buying it – because that supports that game designer in making more games down the line.

This got longer than I was expecting, so next time: I’ll look at examples of what I’m talking about “in the wild”

KickStarter Part 1.5, by way of the #Feminism anthology, nano-games, and gate-keeping

[Before I start: I know that I said I was going to come back and do the second part of my look at the gender breakdown of KickStarter campaigns, and I really am! But what I wound up writing about here felt very germane to that post that I am going to write, in that writing this felt like laying the groundwork for that.

Also, I reference A LOT of names and specific games, but if you’re not involved in the world of indie tabletop, don’t let that put you off. The sorts of bullshit identity politics I’m talking about exist in ANY scene.

ETA: The first version of this post got completely fucked up by wordpress. I fixed it as fast as possible; many apologies to those who saw it in its accidentally unfinished state.]

First: #Feminism and why it’s cool

Last week was Dreamation, which I went to for the first time this year, and it was an amazing experience. There were SO MANY [women and visible minorities and visibly queer folk] in attendance that it felt really wonderful and safe and welcoming.

One of my favorite things that I got to experience while at Dreamation was #Feminism, an anthology of feminist nano-games that was funded through IndieGoGo and (so I hear) will be available for sale very shortly. What is a nano-game? Well, to quote Misha Bushyager (the campaign coordinator):

For our purposes, a nanogame is an analog roleplaying game that lasts less than an hour. Our games are for 3 to 5 players, and are playable with simple tools like paper, pens, paperclips, timers, or other things you can find in the bottom of your bag.

Because the games were short, and so many authors of the games were in attendance, they offered a “smorgasbord” of a subset of games from the anthology on the last day of the convention. About thirty people showed up and split into groups and most people got to play two games in a two hour slot. There were so many great games on offer from the anthology that it was difficult to choose!

Some of the games that were there that I did not play: Manic Pixie Dream Girl Commandos – a game that involved a scavenger hunt of sorts that required doing stereotypically MPDG activities. There was a game about the orgasm gap in which you play a couple on a first date (unfortunately the title escapes me First Date). There was another game that was actually a trio of even SMALLER games about breaking down taboos around talking about female anatomy, Mentioning the Unmentionables, the first of which is literally just replacing words in movie titles with the word vulva. (ie Dances With Vulvas, Octovulva, Vulva Wars) Lizzie Stark (who is amazing) was describing the game to me and a friend, and I giggled the entire time out of horrid, visceral nervousness. (Hooray for being a recovering Catholic!)

The two games I did get to play from #Feminism were Curtain Call – a game about the horrifying sexism that women celebrities in the entertainment industry face, and Shoutdown to Launch – a game about gendered interruption humorously disguised as a game about troubleshooting a last minute mechanical problem before a space shuttle launch. Both games were very intense and hard-hitting, and the conversations that were had afterward were important. And playing those two games made me really excited about picking up a copy of #Feminism and playing through the games to see what other interesting and important conversations might be prompted by the other games in the collection!

Which leads directly into…

Gatekeeping and why it’s bullshit

(I’M SO GOOD AT SEGUES YOU GUYS.)

Ironically, the first night I was at Dreamation, I wound up having a conversation with a couple male game designer friends who I hadn’t seen in several years, since they stopped going to GenCon. One of them started complaining about nano-games and how he doesn’t understand why they’re “trendy”. Most of his complaints revolved around format and presentation – Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast and Starlit kicked off a bit of a fad for writing games that could fit on a business card, and it was such a novel idea several game designers were intrigued by the challenge and wrote games with similar space constraints. And sure, the text on Vast and Starlit is hard to read, and yeah, it’s not convenient to refer back to you if you need to clarify something. But using a particular attribute (ie fits on a business card) of a subset of a genre of games (ie nano games) in order to dismiss an entire genre of games? That’s shitty!

In this particular instance, it’s shitty because there are people doing hard-hitting, important work within the format of nano-games! #Feminism is an amazing collection of games! Moreover, that designer’s complaints about format don’t even apply, because the anthology is beautifully presented – large text and headings, very readable, icononography that clearly classifies each game and conveys at a glance what sort of play experience you can expect. (For example, each game has x out of 5 teardrops that are labeled “feels”. PERFECT.) So dismissing work like #Feminism “because nano-games” is doubly shitty because 1) #Feminism is hard-hitting, important, and DESERVING OF ATTENTION and 2) the reason being given to dismiss nano-games (and thus #Feminism) doesn’t even apply.

It’s this kind of behavior such a classic example of the sort of gate-keeping behavior that keeps women’s work from being regarded as “important” or “noteworthy” or even just “worth paying attention to”, which sucks! (And is surprising, given that this designer has a history of publicly butting heads with certain people in the hobby who like to gatekeep hardest.)

Or, to provide another, more personal example… I am a game designer who “only” writes hacks. It wasn’t until recently, with the runaway success of Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark that what I do was even universally acknowledged to be “real” game design. Previous to these games, it was pretty common for people to dismiss hacks as not “real” game design. Hell – I did it to myself; I argued with people who tried to call me a game designer for two years after publishing my first game because I had “just” written a hack. However, since anything that makes $179,000+ on KickStarter (as Blades in the Dark did) can’t possibly not be “real”, the goal posts have since been moved. Hacks are now game design, but designers who write “new and original” systems are doing “better” work, because they are helping “progress the state of the hobby”.

And this is ALSO shitty gate-keeping. Because ANY time you have a person or group of people who believe that they have the ability to draw a line around what work is “real” game design and what work is less valuable, or doesn’t contribute to the hobby, or just plain isn’t game design… Inevitably the boundaries of the space defined as “real” privilege whiteness and maleness, and the space defined as “not real” is where not-white-dudes end up being greatly over-represented. The fact that it took the legitimizing male-whiteness of John Harper, Sage LaTorra, and Adam Koebel to shift that conversation is just the latest example in a long line of shitty examples of white men re-drawing the boundaries of game design in ways that include MOSTLY JUST WHITE DUDES.

So yeah, I get pretty damn annoyed with people who dismiss projects like #feminism “because nano games”, and it’s why I look at games like this. If the author calls it a game, then it’s a game. Period.

Because the existence of spaces like Dreamation, that are wonderful, and inclusive, and safe feeling  does NOT change the fact that tabletop gaming is a hobby with A LOT of shit to unlearn, and women’s work just ISN’T TAKEN SERIOUSLY. And that’s not just my personal bias opinion. You can argue with opinions, but you can’t argue with data, and the data is that 6% of all KickStarters for tabletop games in 2015 were female-fronted but raised only 3% of total revenue. And that’s just one of many statistics that I’ve gathered recently that show how deeply, DEEPLY fucked it is to be a female game designer, let alone a female publisher.

And here’s the thing. There’s no such thing as a game, or a game type, that everyone likes. The importance of #Feminism as a group of games with powerful things to say doesn’t mean that you have to LIKE the games it contains.

Hell, I HATE super-trad dungeon crawling games. Torchbearer and Dungeon Crawl Classics push every single one of my “HOW THE HELL IS THIS EVEN FUN” buttons. But I have friends who do love them, and I’ve even gotten to play a couple of these games with them, and their enjoyment and enthusiasm was infectious and wonderful, and doesn’t in any way invalidate my opinion that I REALLY HATE playing Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Similarly, your personal gripes about nano-games doesn’t in any way invalidate the worth of a collection like #Feminism. And moreover, I might suggest that if your grumpiness about a particular genre of game is leading you to dismiss wholesale a collection of work about the real-world, lived experiences of marginalized people, as written by a pretty-damn-diverse group of people – many of whom are writing from their own lives and experiences? You might be the sort of person who would benefit most from playing a few of the games in #Feminism.

I am not a perfect victim because there is no such thing as a perfect victim

[I know I said that my next post was going to be one in which I took a bit more of an in-depth look at why women are doing so badly on KickStarter. However, when I sat down at my computer to write, what ended up coming out was something very different. So bear with me. I do have that post outlined, and it will be the next blog post I write. I apologize for the interruption.]

The last week+ has been very difficult for me, media-wise. I live in Canada, which means coverage of the trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi has been damn near inescapable. (But wundergeek, what the hell does this have to do with gaming, you might ask? I’m getting there. Be patient.) Simply avoiding radio and television news would not be enough to avoid being exposed, because on every single social network there are shares and links and stories – all with commentary, and all with quotes or transcripts of particularly odious things being said to and of alleged victims. No matter who you are, it makes for harrowing reading. But for me – as someone who has been sexually assaulted by a nerd-famous man and who didn’t speak out because of concerns over being treated… pretty much exactly how the witnesses are being treated now? It hasn’t been a fun ride.

[Explanatory sidebar: For those of you who aren’t Canadian or have otherwise missed the scandal, Jian Ghomeshi is the former host of a wildly popular national radio show and a former NATIONALLY BELOVED media figure. He was fired by the CBC when allegations started to emerge that he had sexually assaulted a number of women. He initially tried to sue for wrongful dismissal, but the suit was withdrawn as more and more women spoke out. So far 23 women have spoken out, and the current trial includes only 3 of those women as witnesses.]

Attorney for the defense Marie Henein has made headlines for simply eviscerating witnesses on the stand, using Ghomeshi’s comprehensive archives of communication to attack the credibility of the witnesses. And while it’s true that Henein certainly can’t be held responsible for inventing the standard defense playbook for sexual assault trials, she has been disgustingly effective in deploying it. Puzzlingly, the crown prosecutor has not included any testimony about the psychology of abuse victims, because all of the so called “inconsistencies” in the witness testimonies are pretty fucking consistent with the psychology of abuse. But it looks like they’re not going to, and the common media consensus is that Jian will probably get off now that the three witnesses have been so publicly “discredited”.

Listening to the coverage summarizing Henein’s arguments has been harrowing, and more than a little triggering, because the defense’s devastatingly effective attacks on the “credibility” and “reliability” of the witness testimony, and the popular media narrative accepting that these witnesses can’t be held as “credible”… all of it highlights just HOW FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE it is for women to live up to the standard of the “credible victim”, because being “credible” requires being PERFECT, and THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT VICTIM.

(Here’s where we get back to how this relates to the topic of this blog. Thanks for bearing with me this far.)

Several years ago, I wrote about my experience of being sexually assaulted at a gaming convention by a man I have jokingly described as “nerd famous” – someone who is famous and universally (well, almost) respected as one of the top minds in game design and publishing. And I know, I KNOW in my heart of hearts that my decision not to name that person was the correct one, because there are so very many reasons why I am also not a perfect victim.

A perfect victim would never have agreed to share a bed with a man that she did not know well. A perfect victim would have said something when she first began to get uncomfortable. A perfect victim would not have allowed him to restrain her, or would have removed his arm from restraining her once it happened. A perfect victim would have removed herself from the situation once it grew intolerable instead of waiting until morning.

A perfect victim would have openly removed all of her belongings from the room and left to report the incident right away instead of sneaking back up and moving her stuff while her attacker was absent in order to avoid a confrontation. A perfect victim would have told her attacker to keep his distance. A perfect victim would NOT have had breakfast with her accuser. A perfect victim would have told friends, of which there were many present, that something was wrong and that she was not okay. A perfect victim would have asked for help in reporting the incident and making sure that action was taken.

But I was NOT the perfect victim. Hell, I didn’t even KNOW I was a victim until later that day when my attacker wanted to join a group of friends and myself in going for dinner, and I started to have an anxiety attack. I got a male friend to intercede and tell my attacker that he needed to keep his distance, but it wasn’t until afterward when I was explaining to the male friend in private what had happened and why I had made the request that I realized that what had happened was sexual, and was abuse, and was not okay. And it took SOMEONE ELSE SAYING IT TO ME in order for me to realize that it was true.

But the moment in which I accepted that what happened was abuse was also the moment in which I knew that I would NEVER be able to name the man who attacked me:

Decide that you are going to blog about what happened. Be angry that you can’t ever say who it was. No one will believe that he would do something like that. Know in your soul that naming him would be the same as exile from this community that you’ve built a place for yourself in. Know that you are not capable of dealing with that kind of fallout. Know that you are not able to find out the hard way who will side with you and who will not and not have it destroy you.

Argue with your husband about whether you should blog about the incident. He only wants you to be safe, you are determined not to be silent. Tearfully convince him that you are right. Blog about it with all identifying details omitted. Hate yourself for being a coward.

Become obsessed of the definition of harassment versus assault. Reluctantly decide to call it assault, even though you weren’t raped – mostly because of the physical confinement. Continually minimize your own trauma by telling yourself it wasn’t that bad.

Have panic attacks whenever his name comes up in your gaming-related social media streams, which is often. Learn to look like you are being productive while you are, in fact, doing your best not to hyperventilate.

Get pregnant. Cry. Have more panic attacks. Cry.

Worry that your silence will make you culpable the next time he does something.

Get therapy. Get your shit together. Finally accept that you didn’t say no because your entire life you have been socialized not to.

Everyone knows the standard defenses, explanations that can be deployed to convince victims of abuse that they are to blame. “She was dressed like a slut.” “She was out alone at night.” “She was drunk.” “She was asking for it.” The tragedy is that we live in a society that provides scripts for abusers, but not for victims. Often, victims of abuse don’t even realize they’ve been abused until well after the fact, because the only script that exists – the HORRIBLE RAPIST IN THE BUSHES – barely even resembles the reality of sexual assault, that in 9 out of 10 instances of sexual assault, the attacker is someone that the victim knows and trusts.

And so we hide, we victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. We hide from what we KNOW the consequences will be if we speak out, but it also means that we hide from each other. Each victim becomes an isolated island of suffering. And maybe you manage, like I did, to make peace of a sort with what happened. But things like the Ghomeshi trial stir up the waters, leaving all sorts of garbage and debris on the shore of our lonely islands – trash that we have to pick up ourselves because the abuse is OUR PROBLEM. It is always only ever OUR PROBLEM.

And yet, incidents like this also help victims to chart the waters of victim-hood. In the storm, we catch glimpses of shores of suffering that are not our own and add new islands to map, although the boundaries of those islands can only be charted in the vaguest manner – guesses at best. And one can’t help but wonder – what of the islands that are too well hidden to be found? How many are there? And how are they affected by their seclusion?

Lest you think that my metaphor is getting tortured, this weekend, in talking to a female friend about the agonies of the Ghomeshi trial coverage, she confessed to me that she had experienced a similar incident to the one that I had described in my previous blog post, and that it wasn’t until reading that post that she had the language to describe what happened to her as assault. And in a way I was glad that being even partially open helped her to be able to describe an experience that wasn’t okay. But the encounter was also depressing, because this is always what happens.

Cosby. Ghomeshi. Assange. Woody Allen. Damn near every time the waters get stirred up, I learn of a new story. Of a woman that I respect and admire who has been the victim of harassment, abuse, and assault. And yet sitting here, I can’t say that I know of a single woman who has ever gone public with her story, or has tried to take legal action over it.

So here I am, shouting my despair at the internet yet again, which I seem to do at regular intervals. Because as laudable as the work that is being done to implement anti-harassment policies at game events and conventions is, it doesn’t mean a damn thing until we start fighting back against the need for women to be “perfect” victims.

Detailed analysis of successfully funded games KickStarters in 2015 [SO MANY CHARTS]

Lately, I’ve been working on a series looking at the gender distribution of crowdfunding, starting first with Patreon – which is a crowdfunding model that enables serial content. So far in the series, I’ve done a gender breakdown of a representative sample of Patreon creators with games-related Patreons, a look at the barriers that keep women from becoming creators on Patreon, and an aside with advice for women who want to get into having a Patreon anyway. And unfortunately, the statistics of Patreon creators are pretty dismal; only 24% of Patreons had female contributors, with only 13% of creators surveyed being solo women.

However, only looking at Patreon would be ignoring the elephant in the room. Patreon has changed the landscape of creativity in that artists who want to do projects that wouldn’t traditionally be commercially viable now have a venue for doing work that they want to do instead of having to focus on projects that they are not as interested in but they know will be an easier sell. But Patreon’s funding model doesn’t really do much to address the economic realities of game development: it’s expensive. In order to produce a polished, finished game there are a lot of expenses – writing, editing, artwork, layout, printing, fulfillment, and they’re all vitally important.

Tabletop RPGs are procedural documents – ensuring that your text is clearly written and conveys what it needs to is vital. Layout is just as critical, because the best writing and editing in the world won’t keep your customers from being frustrated if they can’t find the rules they need to reference at the table. Art is important to draw people in to the world you are creating, and to convey the feel of the game. And as with any creative work, you get what you pay for. You can save money by finding people who are willing to work on the cheap, but generally the people doing the best work know that they’re doing the best work and will insist on being fairly compensated for their time.

Lastly, while I’ve heard increasing grumbling from publisher friends that “next time” they’re going to do a KickStarter with digital-only distribution, we have yet to reach a point where that wouldn’t be cutting off your own nose to spite your face. But face it, shipping physical product suuuuuuckkkkksssss. Production and shipping the physical product is a huge chunk of any KickStarter budget, and costs are non-negotiable. If you want the thing, you pay what the supplier demands. Those costs add up quickly, and even for small projects with only modest aspirations, budgets for a typical RPG tend to be thousands of dollars. So for most small to medium-sized publishers, KickStarter (or other platforms like IndieGoGo) is the only way that indie publishers can afford to produce polished, professional quality game products.

So with all of that said, I felt that I would be I would remiss were I to not do examine the demographics of KickStarter, just as I have already done with Patreon.

Methodology and Sources

In determining which data I wanted to examine, I decided that I would look at all successfully funded RPG KickStarters from 2015 – excluding campaigns that were either canceled or failed to meet their goal. Unfortunately, assigning gender to a KickStarter is a much trickier prospect than with Patreon; very few Patreons had more than two creators, and only one that I surveyed had a creator team with more than four people. However, since KickStarter projects can be much larger, teams for RPG products can get pretty damn huge. For example, I was one of twenty or so writers on V20 Dark Ages. Then there were lead developers, an editor, and I don’t even know how many artists. So figuring out how to determine the “gender” of a project becomes a much trickier prospect.

In the end, what I settled for was looking at who it was that fronted the project – so either who was it that created the campaign, or if that was inconclusive was there a name attached to the title of the campaign itself? (Frex) I then assigned each result to one of the following categories:

  • solo male (a single man working alone)
  • solo female (a single woman working alone)
  • all male (a group of at least 2 men working together)
  • all female (a group of at least 2 women working together)
  • mixed gender (a group with at least one woman and one man working together)
  • studio (a medium to large sized games company or publisher that is not a sole proprietorship)
  • unknown (aliases or names for which gender could not be determined)

I also broke down the types of campaigns, since “roleplaying games” is a pretty broad category, into the following sub-categories: campaign settings, adventures, events, multimedia, dice, accessories, supplements, and games. Lastly, for each campaign I recorded the total amount raised and what percent of their goal was raised. (Logically, since I only looked at successful campaigns, all results for percent of goal raised were over 100%)

Sadly, KickStarter’s interface is pretty terrible for collecting this sort of data. So I wound up turning to RPGGeek, where RPGGeek users maintain an ongoing list of games KickStarters by year. I’ll admit that I have no way of verifying if their data collection is 100% comprehensive, but it is definitely exhaustive. In collecting the data that I needed, I had to go through twenty four pages of forum results. Given that I counted a total of 388 successfully funded campaigns, I feel that my results are definitely statistically rigorous.

That said, I did filter my raw results slightly. In putting together “final” numbers for the charts that I was preparing, I chose to omit 18 campaigns from the results because of sketchy practices surrounding artificially low funding goals. For instance, there was one guy who by himself had 8 successfully funded campaigns in 2015 – which sounds impressive! Until you realize that he was funding basic adventure modules and his goal for each campaign was only $30. So despite that each campaign was only making around $800-$1500 or so, he was seeing THOUSANDS of percent on his campaigns in terms of percent of goals raised. Since I was very interested in percent of goal raised to see if gender was a factor, I wanted to get rid of the extreme results so that my conclusions would actually be meaningful. So it should be noted that while I recorded 388 successful campaigns, results below were tabulated based on the filtered total of 370.

The Results

Overall-gender

As someone who has been observing KickStarter as a publishing platform for several years, I wasn’t too surprised that the gender breakdown even less egalitarian than Patreon. What did surprise me was how much lower the percent of female participation was. Patreon’s 13% representation of female-only creators is pretty dismal, but 13% is at least mostly in line with the current representation of women in the industry as a whole.

KickStarter, however, had slightly less than half those numbers in terms of solo female representation, with only 6% of all successfully funded games projects in 2015 being fronted by solo women. And widening the focus to include all campaigns that include at least one female front person actually makes the numbers worse, which may be due to the fact that out of 370 KickStarters, not a one of them was fronted by a group of just women. As it turns out, solo female campaigns together with mixed gender campaigns made up 9% of overall KickStarter campaigns, as opposed to 24% of the Patreons that I examined having female creator participation (or only 3/8 of Patreon’s numbers).

Pretty bleak, right? Well strap in, because it gets worse.

Overall-funds-pie

Holy shit! Solo female campaigns make up 6% of the total number of KickStarters, but account for only 3% of 2015’s total funds raised! Mixed-gender campaigns also suffer a penalty, although not quite as bad – they received only 2% of total funds raised despite making up 3% of overall campaigns. By contrast, all-male campaigns accounted for 10% of total funds raised while only making up 4% of overall campaigns.

Granted, it is true that solo male campaigns “underperformed”, at 41% of total funds raised for 65% of total campaigns. However, I think that probably has a lot to do with the fact that there were an awwwwful lot of sketchy solo-male campaigns that I saw that had super-low (ie sub-$1000) goals, so it makes a lot of sense that the studio campaigns would overperform so dramatically while solo-male campaigns would suffer.

So what happens when you start looking at averages by gender category? Well, things get interesting, and a bit less clear.

Overall-amt-raised

Studios had the highest average funds-raised-per-campaign, which makes sense. A company like Onyx Path or Green Ronin is going to have a larger audience and has the logistics in place to fund a campaign with a much larger scope than the smaller operators, which lets them rake in the big money. What I didn’t expect was how comparatively small the gap between studios and all-male campaigns would be, and how large the gap between all-male campaigns and everything else would be.

The fact that mixed-gender campaigns outperformed solo gender campaigns is interesting, although it may be another reflection of the preponderance of low-goal “sketchy” campaigns by solo male creators. Still, it is undeniable that solo female creators have the lowest average funds raised by far, with solo female campaigns averaging a mere quarter of all-male campaigns, and just under 90% of the average solo male campaign.

Of course, something that is undoubtedly a factor is that if you look at the average requested funding level, the gender category that asks for the least money is, of course, women:

Overall-avg-goal

Again, studios come out on top – although again that’s not terribly surprising given the scope of many studio-fronted products. The results after that get a little muddled; for instance why are mixed-gender campaigns averaging the second-highest requested goal?

Still, women again come in last, asking for only only 73% of what solo male campaigns requested, and only 39% of what all-male campaigns requested. I was hoping against hope that perhaps that would be mitigated if I looked at the percent of goal raised. If the lower goals were perhaps offset by solo female campaigns doing better in terms of percent of goal raised…? But no. They weren’t, mostly:

Overall-PCT-goal

So yeah, there’s a weird blip with mixed gender campaigns having the second-highest requested goals and yet having the lowest percent raised. I honestly couldn’t begin to untangle what’s going on there. But solo female campaigns still come in second last, at only half of the percentages that all-male campaigns have managed. So, you know, that’s a thing that’s depressing.

I could have stopped there, but I got curious about what would happen if I looked at each campaign type by gender, which actually turned out pretty interesting. So just for shits and giggles, I present for your further edification the gender breakdown of each category examined:

Bar-settings

What the actual fuck. In ALL of 2015, EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN SETTING KickStarter was either by a studio or a lone dude? (For a second I was like, WHAT THE SHIT WHAT ABOUT RUINED EMPIRE, I KNOW THAT WAS BY A LADY LIKE PRETTY CONCLUSIVELY. And then I remembered that was in 2014 and felt stupid.)

So. Yeah. NO settings fronted by women, or even partially by women in 2015. Wow.

bar-adventure

Jeez. Adventures have some female representation, but honestly the numbers don’t look all that much better. Around 8ish percent of all adventure KickStarters had female participation, but they only received 2% of total funds raised for their category? I mean, sure it’s great that they over-represented in terms of goal and percent of goal, but still. Oof. Feels.

Bar-events

Events represented the smallest category, so it’s hard to make any conclusive statements other than even with a large relative proportion of campaigns by people of unknown gender, it’s still pretty damn male-dominated. Which was surprising, because all of the best, most competent, most hard-working event organizers I know are women! So I didn’t expect that at all.

Bar-multimedia

The lack of any mixed-gender teams in this category makes the numbers really straight forward. Yes it’s great that when you look at average funding, solo female campaigns over-performed relative to their overall participation in the category. But that doesn’t change the fact that only ONE out of ten multimedia KickStarters in 2015 was by a woman, which is a shitty ratio no matter how you look at it.

Bar-dice

I seriously was not expecting such a large number of KickStarters making DICE of all things, nor was I expecting them to be so lucrative. Still, not really sure what else to say that won’t sound repetitive here. I mean, whee! Yet another category totally dominated by men. Shocker.Bar-accessories

Cool. So with no mixed-gender participation, once again we have ONE campaign with female contribution out of an entire category that makes up a pretty sizeable chunk of the total number of successful campaigns. Still, one out of 44 is still 2.2%, so that doesn’t really explain the fact that that singular campaign only raised 0.3% of total revenue. Seriously? What the hell.
Bar-supplements

Yup. Looks like women making supplements have a shitty time of it too. MY SURPRISED FACE. LET ME SHOW IT TO YOU.

bar-games

Well. Kickstarters for games at least manage to do (sliiiightly) better than average in that 8% of total campaigns were fronted by solo women, as opposed to 6% of the overall total. Still, as with every other category, they did not receive a proportionate level of funding. YAY. EVERYTHING IS DEPRESSING.

And that’s all for today

I’ve got more to say, but that’ll have to wait for next time because this post got super long and I AM FINALLY DONE.

Advice for people (especially women) who have been thinking about starting a Patreon

I’ve gotten a lot of really positive responses to my last post about the barriers that keep women from engaging with Patreon. In the comments I mentioned that something I had meant to address in that post was advice for how women could go about having a Patreon ANYWAY, but that time and space constraints prevented me from including that. I’d been planning on moving on to my posts about KickStarter, since I try to avoid spending suuuper-long stretches of time on one particular topic – especially when that topic is highly specialized and isn’t of particular interest to people outside of a specific group. However, I’ve gotten several requests from people to please write this post. So here we are!

0: Material Previously Covered

Last year I did a huuuuge series on “advice for women looking to get into game design”. It covered pretty well everything, from the pros and cons of self-publishing to all of the various economic models for doing so. I’m not going to say you need to read all of that, because seriously it’s really long. However, I’d recommend reading part 2 of the first post in the series here about common cognitive pitfalls to watch out for. I also wrote a little about the different types of Patreons out there in part 3 of that series with some examples (under the heading Serial Content: Patreon), some of which are now sadly out of date.

So you can go read that stuff. You know, if you want.

1: JUST DO IT

If starting a Patreon is something that you’ve been waffling about for a while, then in the words of the immortal Shia Lebeouf…

Seriously, though. JUST. DO IT. Especially if what you want to start a Patreon for is shit that you would do anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? People don’t support you and nothing has changed. Setting up a Patreon page takes 1-2 hours, depending on how much thought you put into it. You’d be out that time, sure, but nothing else.

“But, wundergeek! If I start a Patreon and no one pledges, I’ll be so embarrassed!”

Look, I get it. I do. But I’ll tell you a secret, gentle reader. Failure is an unavoidable part of being creative. Not every idea is going to catch on! Patreon at least front-end-loads the failure so that you haven’t lost tens or even hundreds of hours on something no one wants to consume. (Which is something that I’ve done, by the way, and wow does it ever suck. But that’s a tale for another post.)

However, I’ll also note that sometimes it’s the projects that we most expect to fail that surprise us. Take this blog, for example; when I first started writing it, I thought that there was no way any significant number of people would read it. And yet nearly five years, 2+ million views, and 81 (at the time of writing this post) patrons later, here we are. So don’t let your assumptions about what people will be willing to support keep you from trying, because brains are assholes.

1a. “But the thing I want to do is weirdly specific and there’s no way anyone would pay for it!”

First, while there are some people who become patrons purely with a goal to consume specific content, there are also people who become patrons because they want to support the creator, and not necessarily because they’re a super fan who loves everything that that creator is producing.

Second, never forget that the internet is a weird place. Your weirdly specific thing might be someone else’s “thing they wished someone would make” that they’ve been waiting for someone to make so that they could give them money for it. The outrageous overnight success of Send Your Enemies Glitter is proof of that.

Third, if you are a member of a marginalized community, there’s a really good chance that your brain is being an asshole. Tell your brain that in a market as saturated with RPG content as the current market is, weird and specific also means distinctive, which will help you stand out. And then tell your brain to get stuffed.

2. Don’t feel pressured to make a video.

A profile and a cover picture is more than sufficient to launch a campaign with. Don’t let yourself get hung up on the idea that you “have” to have a polished video in order to be taken seriously, even though I’m pretty sure Patreon says when you’re setting up a profile that pages with videos get more patrons (or at least it did when I was setting mine up, which was admittedly two years ago).

2a. Cover images are easy, and here’s why

Are you making game hacks? Take a picture of some character sheets spread out on a table! Are you making stock art? Collage a few of your best pieces together. Blogs and other writing projects are a bit harder, since the end product is a bit more intangible. But even then there’s no need to get fussed, because here is what you can do.

First, do an image search on Wikimedia Commons (because stealing other people’s work to promote your own is a shitty thing to do). Find an image that you like and put some simple text over top of it that summarizes what you do. No graphics software? No problem. Pixlr’s photo editor is a nice, free, in-browser image editor that is pretty well equivalent to the old Limited editions of Photoshop. (Make sure you select Pixlr Editor and NOT Pixlr Express.)

example 1

SO PROFESSIONAL

Now, you might feel like your image looks a little slapped-together when you do that. So here is my totally easy trick to make your image look more polished with about 15 seconds of work: OUTER GLOW. So here’s what you do. You have your image, and your text will be on its own layer. Click the layer styles button (highlighted in the screenshot above). Then follow the steps in the screenshot below:

example 2

Now your text has a black border! Except it will still be fuzzy and not really all that useful, so you’ll need to tweak the settings a bit, like so:example 3

Bam. Now you’ve got an image that looks like you actually worked on it. Win.

3. Decide on a content model and communicate that content model clearly to your patrons

There are two basic ways of charging patrons – either they pledge a static amount per month, or they pledge per content – at which point their pledges might vary from month to month if you are getting into posting multiple items per month and they have monthly limits set up to cap their maximum contribution.

My recommendation to people just getting started with Patreon is that they default to per-content for their pledge model. When you’re just getting started, a per-month model is going to deter a lot of folks who might want to support you but also want to see a proven track record of providing consistent return on investment. Setting up your Patreon as per-content means that your patrons are only on the hook when you produce content, and the controls for setting monthly caps are robust and relatively easy to set up such that your patrons won’t need to worry about getting into paying you more money than you’d expected.

If you are someone who has a lot of real-world obligations and know that your content production is going to be inconsistent, make sure you make that part of your pitch upfront. That way your patrons are going into supporting you knowing that the content flow is going to be uneven, and if you have a few weeks where your life explodes and you don’t make anything – it’s okay. (Though if something happens that keeps you from adhering to your usual content frequency, it is polite to drop a note to your patrons letting them know. I’ve done this as patrons-only messages through Patreon when it’s happened to me in the past, and my patrons have always been wonderfully supportive when it’s been an issue.)

There are drawbacks. Per-month funding evens out the revenue stream; per-content logically means that you get more money in months where you produce more. And, also logically, the inverse is also true in that if you have a month where you don’t produce anything… you also don’t get any money. Still, I feel those are pretty minor considerations overall. I’ve had my Patreon for two years and still wouldn’t consider switching the funding model, because per-content is much better for how I operate given the meatspace demands on my time and attention.

3a. Different model subtypes: examples

For the sake of clarity, and because you shouldn’t do exactly what I do just because it works for me, here are the four most common Patreon models that pertain to game type. YMMV:

  • Charges per unit content, all content publicly available (ex: this blog!)
  • Charges per unit content, all content available to patrons (ex: Kaitlyn Peavler)
  • Charges per unit content, content available to patrons with previous content available for purchase (ex: Worlds Without Master)
  • Charges per month, grants access to content (ex: Avery McDaldno, now defunct)
  • Charges per month, all content publicly accessible (ex: John Harper, now pretty much defunct)

4. Offer a $1 level, even if $1 won’t give access to the thing you are making

Never underestimate the $1 pledges, because they really add up! Having a $1 level makes it possible for someone to say “well I’m not interested in that thing they’re doing, but I really like the creator so it’s worth $1 to me just to help them do what they want to do”.

TEN out of my 81 patrons have set themselves up as “no reward”, meaning they don’t want any of the perks that come with their donation level. They just want to give me money, and that’s it.

Patreon patrons are generous folk, is what I’m saying here.

5. Be conservative in setting up your milestones (if you set them up at all)

Milestones are NOT something that you need to start right away. Hell, two years later I still haven’t set up milestones, because I don’t know what I would set as my goals. I tailor the amount of work I do for posts here on my blog to the amount of support I get. When I first started this Patreon, I was averaging around 1500 words per post. Now 2000-2200 is much more my usual average, because I can afford to go more in-depth.

Still, if the thing you want to do is a thing that it would make sense to set up milestones for, BE CONSERVATIVE. I lose between $5 to $10 per post on pledges that don’t get processed, for whatever reason. People don’t do it maliciously – most often it’s because their credit card information changed and they forgot to update all of their peripheral shit like Patreon. But it happens. Add in the fact that Patreon’s and PayPal’s cut adds up to about 10-11% of your total AFTER dropped pledges… you can end up on the hook for a lot more work per unit dollar than you wanted to be doing.

My advice – don’t set them up right away. And leave yourself lots of wiggle room if you do set them up, and be willing to communicate with your patrons if you have to change your milestones.

Speaking of which…

6. Thou shalt communicate with your patrons

If you’re someone who sucks at email, learn to not suck at it. Patreon isn’t exactly a business transaction, in that your patrons aren’t buying and selling content per se. But they are making it possible for you to do the thing that you want to do, so be courteous about responding quickly to messages. It will go a long way toward building goodwill. It sounds stupid and obvious, but you want your patrons to feel good about you as a human being, since that will make them more likely to want to continue supporting you.

7. Don’t feel guilty about charging your patrons

If you’ve communicated what it is that you want to do, and you’ve communicated your expected content schedule, and the thing that you’ve produced is even remotely within the scope of your Patreon, then let go of your guilt and make that post paid already! Having a clear pitch isn’t just important to attracting new patrons. It’s also important to set expectations so that your patrons know who you are and what you’re doing.

If someone is your patron, they have agreed to become your patron because they WANT to give you money to do the thing that you are doing. So feeling guilty about doing the thing that you are doing and NOT allowing people to give you money for it is actually the opposite of what your patrons were hoping for.

Of course, I say this as someone who still struggles with this. I had to be reassured that it was okay to make this a paid post before I did so, and even then I still feel a bit hinky about it. So, you know, do as I say and not as I… feel? Or something.

Why don’t more women just… you know, create Patreons?

[Big thanks to the awesome ladies in my G+ circle who helped give me ammunition I needed to outline this post. Thanks especially to Filamena Young and Laura Hamilton for being super on-point about evil money things.]

In my last post, I looked at a sample of games-related Patreons and the not-too-encouraging gender breakdown of creators, and the breakdown is pretty dismal; only 24% of the Patreons that I looked at included one or more female creators. Of course, in the face of such numbers, the solution seems simple. Get more women to create and maintain Patreons, right? We can’t expect men to stop using Patreon to rectify the gender imbalance, so logically this means that more women have to get on board to even things out.

Sadly, I can only wish that this was such an easy problem to solve. I know that there were a number of gendered factors that made me a very reluctant adopter of Patreon. And since I ultimately did jump on the Patreon bandwagon, I know that I can’t necessarily speak to the experience of women who have considered it and decided it wasn’t for them.

So I threw out the following questions to my ladies-only circle on Google+, which is chock full of brilliant and talented women: 1) If you don’t have a Patreon, why not? 2) If you used to have a Patreon and have stopped doing things with it, why? And I got a wide variety of responses, which mostly can be broken out into four categories that form a pretty clear picture of the obstacles keeping women from being active, sustained creators on Patreon:

First: Imposter Syndrome[1]

“I don’t have anything to offer”, “No one would be interested in paying to hear what I think”, “I’m not really talented enough to make it on Patreon”. Imposter syndrome is an asshole, and it keeps a lot of super smart, super awesome women from simply believing that they have something unique to offer that people might be willing to pay to support.

And lest you think I’m talking dismissively from my lofty perch as a “successful” Patreon creator about “Those Other Women” who need to learn to “have confidence and everything will be fine”… actually, I’m including myself in this. Because to be honest, I got pushed into Patreon out of financial necessity, and even despite the previous success of my blog, I never anticipated the level of support that I’ve gotten.

Even more absurd, I actually argue with friends who try to state simple facts about how successful my blog has been. Not opinions. Facts. Because I’m not capable of believing that anything that I do or say here is actually important, no matter how much evidence to the contrary that you might show me. Because deep down, this is still just me yelling at the internet. And shit, I’d do that for free, so doesn’t that mean that people shouldn’t be paying me for it?

So just getting past the initial hurdle of believing that you are competent enough to have something to offer through Patreon? It’s a pretty damn big hurdle. But even if you manage to clear that and you do, create a Patreon, you’ll quickly run into the next hurdle that Imposter Syndrome throws at you: feeling guilty for charging your patrons for content that you create. Never mind that you’ve laid out what you want to do and how you want to get paid. Imposter Syndrome is that voice that shouts in your ear that your work isn’t nearly as good as everyone else’s, and your patrons deserve better.

And if you happen to have Imposter Syndrome and depression, that’s when things get really fun! Because not only do you get your brain telling you that your work is worthless, but it also tells you that you are worthless, so good luck ever being able to seriously believe that people would ever actually give you money to create things.

Second: Female Socialization

So. Let’s say that you are a woman who is either 1) lucky enough not to have Imposter Syndrome, or 2) has managed to find ways of at least getting it to shut up for a while. Awesome. That’s the big hurdle, right? From here everything should be easy! Except, wait. Just believing that you produce work that is worth paying for isn’t enough, because once you start actually doing the planning required to make the actual Patreon page, female socialization rears its ugly head.

First, there’s the trap of needing to polish things. A lot of men can have an idea, spend some time throwing together a proof-of-concept, get it to a reasonable level of “eh, good enough”, and expect that when they show it to people what they will respond to is the idea behind it. Unfortunately, if you’re a woman looks matter – even when it’s your work and not your actual personal appearance. In art school, I certainly had enough experiences where my male peers had their work engaged on a conceptual level while mine was criticized for execution, despite being created with the same level of craft.

Unfortunately, “perfect” is the mortal enemy of “good enough”. I’ve seen many a project languish forever in the “polishing” stage, never to be launched because of fear that it wouldn’t been seen as “professional” enough. Meanwhile, there are dudes slapping together some pretty sketchy campaign proposals and simply throwing it out there.

There’s also the issue of marketing. Women are taught pretty explicitly not to put themselves forward, and self-marketing requires doing exactly that[2]. And honestly, it would be pretty hard for me to overstate how drastically hard that is to deal with, because that conditioning isn’t something that simply happens in childhood and stops when you become an adult. It happens every goddamn day.

It happens when I decide to tone down my language on a subject that I feel passionately about, because I don’t want to seem too bitchy. It happens when I disclaim the ever-living shit out of something when I need to talk to a guy about a problem that he is causing because I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with him causing a scene. It happens when someone asks if there are people with specific qualifications who might be able to participate in a thing and I feel I have to choose my words carefully in responding so that I sound interested without being arrogant.

It’s a balancing act, one that women are constantly navigating. So expecting women to be good at the thing we socialize them not to do as part of their success? Yeah, that’s a problem.

Third: “Second Shift” Labor:

Say you manage to get past hurdles one and two. Fantastic! You’re well on your way to becoming a creator! Except, of course, for the fact that the internet is a voracious beast that consumes content at a ferocious rate. The Evil God of Content demands regular sacrifice, and if it is not appeased frequently and on something resembling a schedule, your audience will suffer as a result.

And, you know, fine. As Dorothy Parker once quipped, “writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat”. It’s only fitting that running a Patreon is something that takes work if that work is something you’re getting paid for, yes?

However, actually finding the time to do that work? Is pretty damn difficult if you’re a woman. “Second shift” domestic labor is something that still disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women. If you work all day, then have to come home to more domestic work, when exactly are you supposed to find the time to be creative? And if you have children? Multiply that problem by about three. Nobody is as good at finding ways to interrupt your concentration as a small child, because they love you and want to spend all of their time with you. Which is, okay, adorable (sometimes), but not exactly a boost to one’s productivity. So finding a way to manage all of the competing demands for attention and time, it’s not surprising that a lot of women simply don’t feel they have the bandwidth to sustain a Patreon for any length of time.

Personally, it’s something I struggle with quite a bit myself. I’m incredibly lucky to have a partner who does his fair share of housework and parenting. But being in school and raising a toddler are both full-time jobs, and much as my husband supports me, the economic realities of our situation means that if there is some sort of childcare emergency or doctor’s appointment, I’m always the one who gives up work time to deal with it. As such, keeping up with blogging means that I have to be pretty damn creative about finding time to do research and work on the posts I write here. It also means that I’ve had to learn to be able to write in small chunks – twenty minutes here and there. I don’t have the luxury of slowly “getting into the groove”. When I have time to write, I need to write. It takes a hell of a lot of discipline, and it’s not always something I’m capable of.

So it’s not too surprising that some women would consider all of the factors and say “you know what, I’ve got too much going on in my life to add yet another highly demanding obligation”.

Fourth: Practical reality – money

Even if you manage to deal with the previous three obstacles, money is still going to bite you in the ass. The wage gap is a thing for a reason – it didn’t just spring out of nowhere. Work produced by women is seen as having inherently less worth, which is something you run into… just about everywhere. Take, for example, the fact that white women earn about 78 cents on the dollar for what white men earn, and for women of color, it’s even worse. Hispanic women make only 51 cents on the dollar! Or how about the fact that only 3.5 percent of works of art in the MOMA were created by women – a figure that has held pretty steady despite noises being made about increasing the representation of women artists in the MOMA’s collection.

It’s a self-reinforcing conundrum. Part of the reason women have trouble believing that what they create is worth paying for is because everyone else has trouble believing it too. And if people aren’t going to pay to support the thing you’re making, that causes problems. In some instances, it can be a simple matter of “the time to dollar ratio means that I am working for less than minimum wage”.

Or there can be other problems specifically related to Patreon’s funding model – which takes pledges monthly off of credit cards. Inevitably, when a portion of your pledges get declined (and it happens every month), that’s money that you should have gotten but didn’t. And if you planned your milestones around needing a certain level of support, and your page says your getting that level of support, you can wind up being on the hook for doing extra work for a milestone goal that you didn’t actually financially achieve.

Which, you know, is pretty shitty.

Lastly, according to Pledge Society, there are a whopping 2485 games-related Patreons right now. Given the number of Patreons that exist, and given that we seem to be reaching a level of market saturation in that most people who are patron supporters have long since reached their cap of money that they are willing to contribute to support artists looking for patronage, there is a limited pool of money that is being chased after. If women’s work is seen as having less worth, how exactly are women supposed to compete with the dudes who are hogging so many of the available patron dollars?

For a lot of women the answer ends up being “I can’t”. And I’m not going to lie, sometimes when I look at the amount of money that some dudes are making off of Patreon to do stuff that requires significantly less effort than what I put into what I do here…? It makes me question why I even bother, sometimes.

Fifth: Practical reality – gender

Okay. So there are conceptual hurdles, social hurdles, and practical hurdles, none of which are easy to navigate – even if you happen to be someone with comparatively high levels of privilege like me. (I’m a woman, but I’m also white, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and culturally Christian, so believe me. I’m well aware I have a lot of advantages.) But even if you manage to deal with all of that, gender is always going to be a factor that you absolutely can’t control.

IF you persevere through all of the shit I just described AND you manage to achieve a level of success, congratulations! You’re making something of yourself as a female creator!

Except, don’t forget that making something of yourself as a female creator means that you’re also just plain making yourself more visible as a woman, which on the internet is often a dangerous proposition – especially when one is dealing with gamers. As a consequence of writing this blog, I’ve had some truly unnerving shit happen to me simply because I had the nerve to express opinions about games while female. I once had one dude write more than 11,000 original words about what a terrible human being I am in the space of about a week. (For perspective, my games average between 10,000 and 20,000 words.) I’ve had a professional comics artist swamp my blog with fans after telling them to tell me what a horrible, awful cunt I am. I’ve had people accuse me of being a professional victim for making money off of this blog at the inception of Gamer Gate when Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian were being crucified using that same language.

I’ve stuck it out this far because I’ve been lucky – I haven’t become a hate meme (yet). And because I’m stubborn, and contrary as hell. But I also make a point of telling women in my circles who lament that they don’t have my “courage” that not being willing to put yourself in a situation where you can expect this sort of abuse isn’t “cowardice”. It’s fucking self-care.

Does becoming a creator on Patreon guarantee that you’ll get harassed? No. Of course not. But any time a woman makes herself visible online, that is always a risk, and for some women that just isn’t something they are prepared to deal with. And good for them for knowing that about themselves.

Phew

[That turned out a lot longer than anticipated! Next time: I turn my gaze to KickStarter and the unique problems that women face there.]

[1] Mind, in citing this as an obstacle for women, I’m not saying that men don’t ever deal with imposter syndrome. However, it’s definitely something that is a bigger problem for women than men.

[2] And look. Self-marketing SUCKS, okay? For anyone of ANY gender. But as bad as it sucks for dudes, at least they don’t have an entire lifetime of socialization screaming at you that you’re a terrible person for doing it.

The gender imbalance of games-content creators on Patreon

Since the end of the year, I’ve been working on a numerical analysis of my freelance income in 2015 (although admittedly, it did get derailed by real life stuff; I’d been hoping that it would be finished before now). Non incoincidentally, the income I receive through Patreon for this blog is a large part of that.

My Patreon has done pretty well for itself since inception. I started out with 17 patrons in 2014 and currently have 80 patrons – though that’s down from a high of 84. According to data compiled by Graphtreon, as of the time of writing this post my blog is in the 88th percentile of all Patreons by number of current patrons. Still, as well as I’m doing here, it’s sometimes a little hard for me not to get hung up on the number of male-fronted Patreons that are doing… significantly better than mine. And sure – obviously I recognize that a feminist blog about games is much more of a “niche” Patreon than Patreons producing “actual” game content. Still, something I have been quietly discontented about for a while is the fact that Patreon is a platform heavily dominated by men, and it got me wondering – just what are the gender demographics of games-related Patreon creators[1]?

Unfortunately, this is a difficult question to answer, since Patreon’s interface is, frankly, really really bad. To be fair, they are trying to improve on this, but the results so far have been… mixed. So gathering this sort of data required looking to sources outside of Patreon, since I was not able to determine a way to do this using Patreon’s own website.

Sources

In the introduction, I mentioned Graphtreon as a source of Patreon rankings. I actually wound up not using Graphtreon as a source for my data, since it turns out they were actually a little too accurate for my purposes.

Instead, I gathered all of my ranking data from Pledge Society – which combines Patreon’s own data with a pretty, actually sort of usable UI. Unfortunately, Pledge Society doesn’t do anything to mitigate Patreon’s awful sorting algorithms, which don’t take into account the different revenue models built into their own site, and makes the rankings that it comes up with pretty useless if what you want is an actual list of “who ranks higher than whom”.

What do I mean by this? Well, the ranking system used by Patreon (and thus Pledge Society) doesn’t differentiate between Patreon’s structured around revenue generated per unit content and Patreon’s structured around revenue generated per month. So to use my own blog as an example, I average between 3-5 paid posts per month, with a nominal pledge level of $170/post (which doesn’t incorporate the diminishing returns effect of monthly pledge caps, but that’s a different can of worms entirely). Logically, my blog outperforms Patreons which only bring in $170 at the end of the month, and yet that’s where it appears in the rankings.

However, in this case, that mix of high and medium-level campaigns in the top rankings actually wound up more useful in capturing a representative sample for two reasons: First, the very top of the top of the leaderboards are even more homogenous than the lower-high-end and the middle of the pack, which still aren’t terribly diverse anyway. Second, despite the different sorting methods, both Graphtreon and Pledge Society are getting their data from Patreon, which does not include gender of creator in its rankings or campaign summaries. So in order to put together the data for this post, I had to go to each individual Patreon page to attempt to determine the gender of the creator(s), which was a stupid amount of extra, incredibly tedious work.

About three quarters of the time, this was all that was needed. Hooray! However, the rest of the time I wound up needing to go to a YouTube channel, or a Twitter account, or a Facebook page, etc. Given how irritating all of that was, I lost patience early on and decided I was only going to do the “top” 200 games Patreons as ranked by Pledge Society, since the inaccurate sorting method meant that I’d get a random sampling of middle-level Patreons sprinkled in. Because NO EFFING WAY am I going to look at 2485 INDIVIDUAL PATREONS. Nope nope nope.

Data

In gathering data, I looked at two things: 1) what a Patreon was producing and 2) the gender composition of its creators[2] – which I recorded as either “male creator(s)”, “female creator(s)”, “mixed-gender group”, and “unknown gender”. You’ll note that there’s no differentiation between solo creators and homogeneously gendered groups of creators. Unfortunately, this is something I regret, however I didn’t think to record solo versus group until I was around #175 or so, at which point I wasn’t about to go repeat almost all of my work.

As for what a Patreon is producing, the categories that I recorded were: games (video games, tabletop games, game settings and resources, game mods, etc), videos (let’s plays, streams, vlogs), podcasts, comics, and other (multimedia, art, reviews, blogs, criticism, etc).

It’s important for me to note that there was one category of campaign that I trashed from my results entirely, despite being the third largest category overall: porn. It may sound naive, but I honestly was surprised that porn is even allowed on Patreon, and I was even more surprised by how much porn there is and how much support it’s receiving. But it’s there, and there is a lot of it, and wow is it making a lot of money.

Out of the 200 Patreons that I looked at, a whopping 54 are for campaigns producing porn. The largest portion seems to be for campaigns making porn games and interactive novels. However, there were also things like porn comics featuring notable video game characters, porn videos using custom renders of video game characters, and even an online platform for virtual furry sex rendered in… uh… quite graphic detail.

These sorts of Patreons were not only nearly 100% male-created, but it also seemed that the issues present had much more to do with the subculture of porn content production than the subculture of games content production, for all that the content being created uses the medium and visual language of games. As such, these sorts of campaigns were not included, although an analysis of these Patreons would be interesting on its own (even if I’m not likely to ever write it myself.)

The Results

Out of the 200 Patreons that I looked at, here’s how they broke down by category:

PATR-overall

Patreons producing video content through YouTube are outproducing Patreons producing actual games by 4%, which was a bit of a surprise. Although reflected in those numbers is an increasing trend of content that would have been delivered as podcasts now being delivered as vlogs or video series – as indicated by the fact that podcasts are making up a measly 3% of the Patreons surveyed. I suspect had Patreon been available five years ago, the proportions of vlogs and YouTube Channels being funded would have been far lower, and podcasts would have been much higher; certainly five years ago[3] it seemed like there were an awful lot of gaming podcasts out there (many of which are now defunct).

Unfortunately, when you start looking at the breakdown of gender of creators overall (again, this is not including porn), the results are depressing but not really all that surprising.

PATR-games

Female-only creator(s) make up only thirteen percent of non-porn Games Patreons! That’s squarely in “just barely better than the MOMA” territory, which is pretty goddamn sad. And creator teams that simply include even just one woman still only bump the total up to 24%! Yikes! Now, yes, it is true that creators of unknown gender account for 10%. However, even if you say that every single one of that 10% of creators is actually a woman (statistically unlikely), that still leaves two thirds of the non-porn Patreons that were examined with no female contributors whatsoever, which is pretty sad.

Things get sliiiightly less bleak when you look at the breakdown of non-porn Patreons that are producing games, although I still wouldn’t start dancing in the streets:

PATR-games2

Just under half of Patreons surveyed that are making non-porn games have zero female contributors while fewer than one-fifth of Patreons for non-porn games are controlled exclusively by women. Including mixed-gender teams gets the distribution much closer to half, but again these numbers are belied by the fact that in mixed-gender teams of creators with more than two people, the women were always outnumbered, usually rather significantly. (Again, something I’m kicking myself for not recording actual numbers on.)

But wait, it gets worse. The most popular content type provided by the Patreons I surveyed is also the second-most male dominated!

PATR-videos

SEVENTY SIX percent of Patreons creating video content have zero female contributors, while only a fifth have any female contributors at all! Unfortunately, it seems that as Let’s Plays continue to expand in popularity as an entertainment trend, the people actually getting paid to produce that sort of content are… pretty well all male.

But even seventy six percent is still better than zero, which is how many Patreons producing podcasts featured any female contributors:

PATR-podcasts

Yup. That’s a thing that happened.

As for comics, they look downright egalitarian by comparison.

PATR-comics

Hooray! Fifty percent of Patreons for comics feature content by women! Except, the sample size is pretty absurdly tiny, so I’m pretty sure all I did for this one was make a pretty chart. Oh well.

Lastly, the “other” category, which encompasses art, conventions and events, reviews, criticism, etc. This is the hardest to gauge, because it has the highest proportion of unknown gender creators:

PATR-other

Is it good that people producing content that is hard to categorize are less likely to be male? Or is it that people producing this sort of content feel more compelled to obscured? I’m honestly not sure what to think.

Whichever way you look at it, though, it’s impossible to deny that the gender imbalance on Patreon in its games-related content is pretty staggering.

[1] It’s worth pointing out that the thesis of this post completely ignores the overwhelming whiteness of games-Patreons, which reflects the overwhelming whiteness of the games industry itself. However, while using names, bios, videos, and profile pictures to make judgements about gender presentation is itself (at the very least!) venturing into problematic territory, it is impossible to use these same methods to determine anything useful about a creator’s racial or ethnic identity. As such, I figured it was best to not even try.

[2] I know that my data falls into the gender binary trap, which is problematic and can be erasing of trans and nonbinary gender identities. And I acknowledge that that sucks! However, I feel strongly that looking at the gender imbalance of crowdfunding platforms like Patreon is important, so this is where I simply acknowledge that “hey, this thing I’m doing is still a bit problematic but I didn’t know how to solve that problem”.

[3]

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

The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

 

Undying-chart

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific Examples

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

Hiatus ending, lots of stuff in progress

Hi, folks!

I’m actually working on the final formatting for a post that will go up in a few minutes, but I wanted to take a moment to address something that I had already apprised my patrons of.

You’ll have noticed that there haven’t been any new posts in the past month. That’s because my life kind of got turned upside down, but in a good way. It turned out that I had the chance to go back to school to upgrade my credentials, something that I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while, but I had to do it starting the January term. As in, right now. So getting all that sorted had to take precedence, which required putting the blog on pause.

I’m happy to say it all worked out. I’ve just finished my second week of classes and I’m happily optimistic about where this will lead. And now that I’m finding my feet, I’m working on getting back into the swing of things blogging-wise. My schedule may end up being less predictable – there will be homework and exams and the like to schedule around. So, for instance, I’m putting up a post today and another on Monday, and that might be more the way things go for a bit. I honestly don’t know! This is a new and weird adventure.

What I do know is that I have LOTS of things I want to write about, and that this blog is my number one priority for freelance scheduling for the forseeable future. And now that the “who the fuck knows what I’ll be doing with myself for the next year and a half” uncertainty of the past month+ has finally been resolved, I can get back to working on plans for providing more and better content for you, my lovely patrons and readers.

Thanks for all of your support, and for sticking with me.

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