Smite: sexist, racist, and culturally appropriating [LONG]

[ETA: I’ve revised my comments with regards to the Greek deities and whiteness, which weren’t clear enough, but you should also read the comments.]

I try not to pay attention to MMOs anymore, because the vast majority of them are steaming dung piles of bullshit sexism. However, Smite is a game that kept coming up on my radar for various reasons. When it first came out, my brother emailed me a few pieces of promo art of the female characters. More recently, a few friends over on G+ that have been talking about playing Smite. So when Smite made a few headlines last week for its decision to include Hindu gods as playable characters, I figured that it would be worth taking a closer look since that was the third time in a relatively short period of time that it caught my attention.

As it turns out, I wound up having a lot of stuff to say. So let’s just jump right on in!

Getting ready to rumble

What exactly is Smite? Smite is a MOBA – a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a genre made popular by games like Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2) and League of Legends. Smite, like other MOBAs, has a pre-set roster of characters that you can choose to play as that have set abilities. If you wish, you can pay extra to unlock special characters or alternate skins. And Smite has a lot of playable characters – sixty-six in total.

Those of you who have been reading my blog long enough to be familiar with my numbers posts will know that I generally tend to stick to the same set of criteria when evaluating character designs in video games; typically I will compare the numbers of figures that are shown with: 1) active poses versus neutral poses and 2) fully clothed versus suggestively attired by gender in order to demonstrate the consistent under-representation, objectification, and sexualization of female characters.

However, this time around going to all that effort really felt like a tremendous waste of time. Such an approach might be worthwhile when I’m writing about Magic and how, despite recent improvements in art direction, their art is still very sexist. But when I’m looking at a game like Smite, which is just as blatant in it’s bullshit sexism as League of Legends, it just feels like a giant fucking waste of time.

I mean, look. This is Aphrodite:

aphrodite

Ridiculous, right? Even more so when you consider that she’s not even the least clothed Smite character. So let’s just take it as a given that the female character designs are definitely objectifying and sexist and not waste time beating a dead horse[1]. Especially as there were a lot of characters to look at and other issues of representation that I wanted write about regarding problematic racist tropes.

Criteria examined and overall summary

[Note: When looking at characters, I looked at the default designs and descriptions as shown on Gamepedia’s Smite Wiki. If I get anything wrong here, I blame Gamepedia.]

In the end, the criteria I decided to examine were:

Number of figures by gender: simply the number of female figures and the number of male figures

Whether a character was whitewashed: I considered a character to be whitewashed if they came from a nonwhite culture but were explicitly depicted as white. I did not count a character as whitewashed if they were an animal or other nonhuman, had animal features, or had nonhuman skin tones (there are several characters that are either blue or purple). While some of them seemed like edge cases that could count as whitewashing, for the most part it seemed too ambiguous to make a definite argument one way or another.

Deity alignment: This was taken from the character descriptions on the wiki rather than the artwork; each character had a blurb a few paragraphs long about their backstory. I read each and assigned each deity as either Good, Neutral, or Evil. (A lot of the Greek gods wound up as Neutral, just because they capricious assholes even if they are gods of nominally good things.)

Character Damage Type: Again, as defined on the Smite wiki, I was curious to see if there would be an imbalance of Ranged characters versus Melee characters, since that’s a pretty common area of imbalance in many other video games.

After going through all 66 characters and taking tally, here’s what I came up with:

overall

In some ways, the numbers were a bit surprising even while they were also completely predictable. Female characters account for 30% of all playable characters. However, while they were clearly more sexualized and objectified, they weren’t any more likely to be whitewashed or to be pigeon-holed as a ranged character. There is an interesting difference when it comes to alignment, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Bullshit sexism

As previously stated, I don’t intend to waste words proving that Smite’s character designs are sexist and bullshit, because they just are. Many of the female promo art pieces feature broken spines, anti-gravity sphere boobs, and painted on clothing. Almost none of the female characters have clothes that would actually function to preserve modesty in any meaningful way in the real world. So regarding the female character design, I’m just going to issue a blanket: THEY’RE BULLSHIT and move on with my life.

Instead, let’s talk about how Smite is another perfect example of the interesting/pretty binary, which I’ve talked about before:

Notice how the male human gets to have actual facial expressions that convey emotions? While the female character renders all have the same vapid expression but with different hairstyles. Because men get to DO THINGS and EXPRESS THEMSELVES but women get to BE PRETTY.

When looking at the different character types, there is such a huge variety when it comes to male characters! Male deities can be humans, humanoids, demi-humans, robots, giant flying serpents, or even giant-ass rock-creatures. Whereas the female deities? Well they get boobs. And sometimes funny hats.

Case in point, look at what happens when you compare male animal and demi-human deities with female animal and demi-human deities:

animal dudes Animal ladies

(TOP LEFT: Anhur, TOP MIDDLE: Anubis, TOP RIGHT: Fenrir, BOTTOM LEFT: Arachne, BOTTOM MIDDLE: Medusa, BOTTOM RIGHT: Bastet)

The male deities are all very appealing avatar images. They give a strong sense of the culture that they come from, while also appearing strong and heroic. Whereas the female deities? The most important part of their designs are their tits, and making sure that they are clearly visible to the viewer. Giant spider thing? TITS. Man-eating snake thing? ‘DEM BOOBS THO. It really goes a long way toward illustrating[2] the priorities of the design team.

Now the interesting thing about Smite is that is that it also manages to throw in some “benevolent” sexism along with all of the bullshit objectification. Remember how I said there was a weird gender imbalance when it came to deity alignment? Well it turns out that out of 19 evil deities, only one is female:

female alignment

male alignment

Now, you may be saying to yourself – but wundergeek, I don’t get it. What’s the problem? The problem is that the stereotype of women are more wholesome and more nurturing is benevolent sexism, which is still sexism. It’s like the boss I had once who told me he only hired women to work in the office because we were more nurturing and community-minded. I found his comment terribly offensive, but didn’t say anything because I happened to desperately need the job at the time.

However, even if it is a stereotype I will admit that this actually ran counter to what I expected. Given that the female characters in Smite were so grossly oversexualized, I had expected the evil deities to skew female – you know, because sexy women are always evil. Since, you know, [mumblemumble]femme fatale[mumblereasons].

So at least if the female characters are horribly stereotyped, at least we have a mix of regressive stereotypes. Yay diversity!

Racist whitewashing

Something that’s honestly more important than the frankly not-all-that-exceptional-for-video-games level of sexism in Smite is the fact that there is an UNBELIEVABLE LEVEL OF WHITEWASHING. Literally EVERY PANTHEON except the Norse deities is whitewashed, with the worst example being the Greek pantheon – who are shown almost universally as blondes or gingers:

greek-whitewashed

(LEFT: Aphrodite, MIDDLE LEFT: Scylla, MIDDLE RIGHT: Apollo, RIGHT: Athena)

[sigh] Uh, video game industry dudes? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Greeks are NOT ACTUALLY WHITE ACTUALLY PRETTY BROWN. Take for example, Tonia Sotiropoulou – who played the Bond Girl[3] in Skyfall. I realize this is an embarrassingly common trope in video games (I’m looking at you Soul Calibur!) but this is pretty fucking awful.

However, EVEN WORSE than the Greek deities are the Chinese deities:

Chinese whitewashed

LEFT: Chang’e, MIDDLE LEFT: He Bo, MIDDLE RIGHT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

WHY DO NONE OF THEM LOOK ASIAN? Seriously, the only one who maybe looks even sorta-kinda Asian is Chang’e, and even then she still looks Katy Perry doing her best Asian drag. All of them have round eyes and decidedly European features.

And I already know what some people might be saying; OMG it’s just the style, the art is anime-influenced, the art is heavily stylized, blah blah blah. So let’s take a second and zoom in on two of the character portraits for these supposedly Chinese deities, shall we?

HouYi-NeZha

LEFT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

Looking closely at the faces, you can see that it’s not just the eyes – although those are a big part of why they look decidedly un-Chinese. Their eyes are round, with visible lids, and are un-slanted. But more than that, the features and facial structure overall conveys the impression of whiteness. And given that I see this mistake repeated again and again across all of the character designs, I have to think that this mistake is more than just accidental.

The Chinese deities do not look Chinese. The Greek deities do not look Greek. The Hindu deities do not look South Asian. It’s obvious that effort was put into ensuring that the costume design would be recognizably adherent to the culture that was being referenced, but when it came to the actual faces of the gods being portrayed? The artist doing the designs obviously didn’t bother looking up references for non-white faces, because EVERY. SINGLE. DEITY. has white features. ALL of the deities that are even slightly human have indisputably white features, which is frankly, inexcusable.

About the only positive thing that can be said with regard to Smite’s frankly terribly racist character designs is that, contrary to my first impression, heroic gods weren’t more likely to be whitewashed than evil ones. So. yay? At least we’re engaging in equal opportunity racism and whitewashing here.

Culturally Appropriating

And here we come to the bit that inspired me to write about Smite in the first place. Apparently the publishers of Smite have decided to add Hindu deities as a faction – a decision which breaks with their use of only dead religions for all of their other factions. (ETA: It’s been pointed out to me that Norse paganism is not actually a dead religion, even if it is widely perceived to be. I apologize.) Unsurprisingly, given that Hinduism is a religion that is alive and well in the world today, there was pushback against this decision, arguing that if Hinduism was fair game that figures from other modern religion – like Jesus or Moses should be permissible.

However, Smite’s publishers would like us all to know that they are definitely not going to use Christian, Jewish, or Islamic figures in their game. But don’t worry – Hindu deities are still a-okay!

250px-T_Ram_Default_Card

Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu

…which is, frankly, pretty bullshit. Especially when you look at the list of Hindu deities that are included, like Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu and one of the most widely venerated figures in Hinduism today. And Hinduism is not a small religion! With approximately 1 billion adherents, Hindus account for approximately 1 in 7 humans on the planet – which makes the decision of Smite developers to use religious figures of central importance to a large and vibrant modern religion all the more shocking.

Because it’s obvious that when faced with the question of “where to draw the line” that the developers of Smite were clear on the fact that they weren’t willing to do anything that might offend any adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, many of whom are white or can pass for white[4]. But Hinduism? Well Hinduism is for INDIANS who are just so, you know, EXOTIC.

…which is just more creepy, culturally appropriating bullshit.

But really, given how generally awful Smite is, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising.

[1] Fair warning. Any comments attempting to argue that Smite’s character designs aren’t sexist are going to be straight-up trashed. I don’t have time for bullshit of that magnitude.

[2] See what I did there?

[3] I have a whole ‘nother rant about Bond Girls and how fucking sexist they are, and how it’s particularly awful that in Skyfall the Bond Girl literally has sex with Bond and then has maybe 3 or 4 more lines of dialogue before dying.

[4] I realize that I am arguing something problematic here. There is a perception that Christianity is equated with whiteness, despite the fact that there are large and vibrant faith communities in South America and Africa and other areas of the world that are decidedly nonwhite. And given the overlap of traditions between the Abrahamic faiths, there tends to be a certain level of automatic goodwill extended to Judaism and Islam. However, I recognize the racial diversity of the communities that practice these faiths and certainly am not arguing that they are worth protecting because of their whiteness or proximity to whiteness.

 

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

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

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

First: the pep talk that isn’t

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

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

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

Privileged person: [fucks up]

Marginalized person: Dude, you just fucked up.

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

Marginalized person: [headdesk]

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

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

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

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

Next: Ally 101 – where to go from there

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

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

1. Learn to use Google

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

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

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

2. Call men on their shit

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

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

3. -ist jokes: JUST SAY NO

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

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

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

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

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

5. STOP TALKING AND JUST LISTEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now go forth and do better.

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

The importance of good art direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacle the first: Defaultism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacle the second: Rogue artists

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

Imrijka_360

Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds

(God dammit, Wayne.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might be too personal

[Note: I am the literal worst at titles. After staring at the title box for half an hour, I finally gave up and typed the first thing that came to me. I’m aware that it’s an awful title, but I give up.]

This post is actually one of the “big things” I’ve had in the works for a few weeks now; although it’s more “big” in the amount of work that went into it than in the “super-exciting” kind of way.

…I’m not really sure how else to introduce it, so I’ll just say that it’s a pretty personal comic and save additional commentary for the end of the post. The images are large and weirdly shaped, so I’m placing the rest of the post under a jump so that it doesn’t screw up formatting for people reading on mobile. (The resizing might make the text a bit hard to read, so you can click on the image for a larger, clearer view.)

Read more of this post

I’m not quite dead

I’ve been having a tough week and haven’t really managed to write anything. However, I did yell at Twitter a lot the other day about patriarchy and how it makes women crazy, and a friend Storifyed it here so maybe go check it out?

I’m still alive and still working on some stuff for the blog. However it’s big and time consuming and I’m running low on both time and bandwidth. Many apologies.


Sidebar: Ruined Empire – my social justice-y campaign setting and sourcebook inspired by Final Fantasy – is finally available for sale now that the books have shipped to KickStarter backers. You can get it in print here, or in PDF either on my PayHip store (which makes me the most money) or DriveThru RPG.

 

Friday Freebies: the apology edition

Before I get started, a few notes:

So here’s the deal: we’ve just entered the busy season at my day job. More workload means less time and bandwidth, means less ability to post here. Go Make Me a Sandwich is going to be my first priority when it comes to writing, but I still have to go to my job and be a mom as well as all that other stuff. Not to mention that this is convention season, and I’ll be attending a couple of those. Lastly, I just signed all of the paperwork to start a big, really exciting project that I’m super excited about. I think it’s going to be a really good thing for tabletop! Unfortunately, it’s on a deadline and it’s not something I can really talk about until after it happens. So that will be a factor too.

My goal is to get one paid post up per week, and I will try to get freebie link posts up as well. Realistically that may not happen. I promise things will pick up again once we get into late summer, and I do have some cool stuff in the works. Thanks for bearing with me.

And now on to the linkage!

Leigh Alexander is totally killing it

Over on Offworld, a new BoingBoing affiliate, Leigh Alexander has been totally killing it with a ton of interesting articles. My favorites lately include: A look at the disturbing trend of bootleg Frozen games, a really interesting profile of indie game developer Nina Freeman, and a piece about Holly Gramazio’s absurd game Pornography for Beginners which lampoons the UK’s new anti-pornography laws.

I would say that OffWorld is definitely worth subscribing to.

Noelle Stevenson, similarly killing it

Noelle Stevenson, the creator of Nimona and one of the writers for Lumberjanes, is one of my favorite people on Twitter.

Recently, she did a series of tweets about the lazy trope of introducing a male antihero by having him wake up to a beautiful woman he clearly has just slept with, suggesting possible alternatives which are all brilliant:

 

antihero

CLICK FOR LARGER MORE READABLE VIEW

 

anti-GamerGate awesome meets GamerGate shenanigans

Recently, ABC did a radio story about GamerGate that characterized it as, you know, what it is – an abusive hate group. Predictably, GamerGate responded with complaints about biased coverage and ABC responded with actual, journalistic integrity! Who knew?

Twitter unveiled some new policy updates regarding harassment, which look promising! However, in the same week they also unveiled a “let any old rando direct message you whenever” feature that left most of my Twitter feed asking WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK WHO WOULD WANT THIS? (Thank heavens it is opt-in.)

The Verge had some great coverage of an awesome story: Zoe Quinn spoke to Congress in a congressional briefing on online harassment and cyberstalking!  It should be noted that The Verge is an example of how to correctly cover such an event, while Polygon’s coverage gets everything so wrong I can’t even. Brian Crecente does some amazing verbal footwork to completely dance around journalistic responsibility; not once does he mention the fact that GamerGate is an actual literal hate group. Worse, he falls back on false equivalence in attempting to present “both sides” which is both reprehensible and cowardly in the extreme.

One of the things that I have been interested to see is how the internet community has been responding to GamerGate as a new reality by creating new tools and platforms to help targets of abuse deal with that abuse. I’ve linked to Crash Override and the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative before, but now there’s an awesome KickStarter by the creators of iHollaback! to fund the creation of HeartMob:

WHAT: After 18 months of planning, collaborating, and creating working prototypes, Hollaback! is launching HeartMob, a platform that provides real-time support to individuals experiencing online harassment – and gives bystanders concrete actions they can take to step in and save the day.

HOW: HeartMob allows users to easily report their harassment and maintain complete control over their story. Once reported, users will have the option of keeping their report private and cataloguing it in case it escalates, or they can make the report public. If they choose to make it public, they will be able to choose from a menu of options on how they want bystanders to support them, take action, or intervene. They will also be given extensive resources including: safety planning, materials on how to differentiate an empty threat from a real threat, online harassment laws and details on how to report their harassment to authorities (if requested), and referrals to other organizations that can provide counseling and legal services.

Bystanders looking to provide support will receive public requests, along with chosen actions of support. You can “have someone’s back” and know that you’re helping them out in a time of need while directly contributing to safer spaces online. HeartMob staff will review all messages and reports to ensure the platform remains safe and supportive.

They’re currently $2000 shy of their goal with 21 days to go. I hope they meet all kinds of stretch goals because this seems like it will be a really great tool.

[Trigger Warning: Harassment and pedophilia]

Okay, this last one’s a bit convoluted so bear with me.

Last week at Calgary Expo there was a booth funded by Honey Badger Radio – a GG/MRA-affiliated group – which was selling GG merch and sending MRAs to troll panels. Calgary Expo, thank god, took swift action and booted them from the convention.

Enter Anne Wheaton (yes that Anne Wheaton), who blogged about this in light of her attendance at Calgary Expo. Predictably, GamerGate didn’t take kindly to that, and started flooding Anne Wheaton’s mentions with harassing messages. So she announced that for every harassing message she got from a Gator, she would donate $1 up to a cap of $1000 to Feminist Frequency. John Scalzi jumped in and said that he would match, and unsurprisingly they got to $2000 in pretty short order. Go Anne!

…unfortunately, GamerGate – ever eager to prove that even when you think you’ve hit bottom there is always another basement where the internet is concerned – responded by saying they were going to donate a matching amount to NAMBLA. (I hope to god that this wasn’t serious.)

Sentinels of the Multiverse: why you always need a woman in the room

[Disclaimer the First: I am going to primarily refer to women and sexism in this post, because this was inspired by a personal experience and that’s the angle that I approach this issue from.  However, you could very easily replace these terms with “trans/non-binary person and transphobia” or “PoC and racism”, and everything I’m saying here would still apply.]

[Disclaimer the Second: I’m going to pick on Sentinels of the Multiverse a lot in this post. It’s a fun game! I enjoyed it! I’d probably play it again! So please don’t interpret this as a scathing non-endorsement. This just happens to be a conveniently illustrative example.]

I recently got a chance to play Sentinels of the Multiverse for the first time, and it was pretty cool. Sentinels is a cooperative deck-based card game in which you play a group of superheroes attempting to defeat a supervillain while also dealing with environmental threats like fires or train derailments. It’s a well designed game that is focused pretty tightly on genre emulation, and it does a great job of it. Sentinels reproduces the feel of superhero comics pretty faithfully through its use of high-powered superhero combat, ridiculous backstories, and… bullshit sexist character design:

Wraith splash

That’s right, all of the female heroes in the base game are drawn with impossibly narrow torsos that leave no room for internal organs and impossibly perky sphere-boobs. Most of them have costumes that expose either cleavage, thighs, or midriff (the Visionary gets all three); though even the one exception (Fanatic) wears boobplate armor that allllmoooost shows cleavage, so even she doesn’t get a pass. The sexy costumes aren’t even “appropriate” to the character concepts! Wraith is a thinly veiled Batman clone, so what’s up with the swimsuit and bandages? Why can’t she have some goddamn armor? Expatriatte is a Punisher-analog who doesn’t have powers, she just has shit-tons of guns. And again, for someone who fights primarily with guns, wouldn’t body armor be more the ticket instead of spandex?

What’s more, Citizen Dawn (a villain) is supposed to be the mother of Expatriette, except you’d never be able to tell because there is no such thing as a woman in comics who appears to be older than mid twenties. Visionary is supposed to be 18 according to her backstory, but you’d never be able to tell from the art that Citizen Dawn isn’t her age!

Sadly, there wasn’t one of the female heroes that wasn’t awful to some degree, and I’m not going to lie: it definitely ruined my fun a little. I tend to want to play female heroes, so long as the female heroes don’t suck (I’m looking at you, 1st edition Descent). But in this instance I stuck to male heroes for the two games we played, since I was playing mostly with people I didn’t know so well and didn’t want to ruin everyone’s fun by harping endlessly about how bullshit some of the card art is.

An important sidebar about depictions of race:

While I said that I was going to focus on issues of sexism as seen through my experience as a woman, I would be remiss in not mentioning that there are some definitely problematic depictions of race in Sentinels as well:

haka-ra

LEFT: Haka, RIGHT: Ra

For example: Haka is a Hulk analog who is Maori. And that could have been cool? Except despite Sentinels being set in a modern timeline, there is some serious noble savage all up in Haka’s backstory. There’s also the problem that Haka’s powers come from his culture, whereas all of the white heroes’ power come from their backstories – which is exotifying and definitely not cool.

Ra, on the other hand, almost falls into the trap of “powers because culture”, except he narrowly avoids that trap by falling into a different trap. Turns out that Ra has actually been reborn on Earth… as a white dude from New Jersey. And look, Egyptian gods reborn as/portrayed by white people is really fucking common, but it’s also just plain shitty.

[end sidebar]

In reflecting on the game afterward, I was strongly reminded of exactly why it is that I came at superheroes through cartoons and not through comic books. I have a definite soft spot for superpowered hijinx, but even before I became a feminist I was never able to get past the feeling that comics were NOT FOR ME. Cartoons like Batman and X-Men may have had their problems, but at least there were female characters I could latch on to that weren’t depicted solely as titillating or objectified. Storm! Rogue! Poison Ivy! Harley Quinn! Their costumes might have been stupid, but they at least got to be people and not collections of sexy bits offered up to a (presumed) straight white male viewer.

And that sucks for a lot of reasons. It sucks that bullshit sexism is so ingrained in comic books that faithful reproduction of comics almost always comes with an equally faithful reproduction of the things that make comics so very problematic.

Worse, it sucks that I want to like superheroes, but most of the time I feel like I just can’t enjoy them the way my male comics friends do. Because well-done superhero stuff that doesn’t fuck up, or at least doesn’t fuck up too much? Oh man that’s just the best ever. Captain America 2 was the best! The new Ms. Marvel is pretty fucking great! And Avengers might not have passed the Bechdel test, but I’m Team Black Widow forever. Superheroes are great, and compelling, and just plain fun! And all I want, all I have ever wanted is to be able to like them as uncritically as my dude friends have always been able to. Because it’s hard to give something your entire heart when that thing won’t stop telling you that it’s just not for you.

But most of all, it sucks because looking at the art for this game and the character concepts, I get the feeling that the team behind Sentinels didn’t intend to make a game full of sexist art. Because yeah the female character designs suck, but the card art still shows them being heroes and not just broken-spined, dead-eyed assemblages of sexy parts of female anatomy. (Except for that one boobshot-with-no-face of Fanatic. Seriously, what were you thinking letting that one through?) To me, it feels like this was a case of there just not being any women[1] in the room.

Because that’s the problem with the vast gender imbalance in the gaming industry. When the people working in the industry on game design and development are overwhelmingly white and male, shit like this is going to happen without anyone ever thinking that maybe they should do something different. Sexist character design is so very, very entrenched across geekdom, and privilege keeps many male game developers and designers from even seeing that it’s there.

When sexism is the background radiation that pervades our lives, the people who benefit from sexism (men) often don’t notice that it’s even there. Even the most well-intentioned, enlightened, feminist-leaning dude is just plain going to miss shit. He doesn’t need to see it, after all, because it doesn’t affect him. Which is why it’s so very important for there to be women at the table during the process of game development[2]. Sometimes what you need is someone who can speak up and say, “wait, you get why that’s bullshit right?”

Let me tell you, I’ve had variations of this experience more times than I can count since starting this blog that can be summed up as a male friend being surprised when I complain about sexist art in a game because they hadn’t even noticed[3]. And then they admit that, shit, yeah – that thing they like is pretty sexist, and express some level of embarrassment that it needed to be pointed out to them. It sucks! (And not just for them, because let me tell you, I don’t enjoy being that person who craps on people’s fun[4].)

But not failing doesn’t have to be hard! Game design is not a solitary process – it takes time and an awful lot of eyeballs. So just make sure to include women and other not-white-het-cis people as some of those eyeballs, and make sure that they know you’ll take their feedback seriously. The wonderful thing about game design is that it is an iterative process! It’s impossible not to fuck up your first draft – but early designs are always a hot mess of bad writing and clunky design. If you make spotting -ism fails part of your design agenda, it is absolutely possible to make games that don’t punch girls in the feels and tell them they have cooties.

[1] Or n-b folk, or PoC, etc.

[2] They also need to have an environment where they feel safe and supported in speaking out against sexist design decisions, which is something many women in the games industry don’t have. But that’s a topic for another post.

[3] I don’t mean this as an indictment on you, dudes, promise. I’m getting better about spotting racist tropes, but I’m still pretty shit at spotting transphobic and ableist tropes. I’m trying, but it’s hard when that shit just doesn’t apply to me. (See how that works?)

[4] I’ve accidentally ruined Guardians of the Galaxy for a more than a few people and I still feel really bad about it.

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