GenCon’s Guests of Honor: Unless you’re Margaret Weis, forget it ladies

Oh man. After the response that I got last week, getting ready to write this post feels like walking back into a biker bar and punching someone in the face again. So let me disclaim by saying that my criticisms are in no way intended to dis the people that GenCon DID select as their guests of honor. I don’t know who most of them are, but I’m sure they’re infinitely more awesome than yours truly. Having met Will Hindmarch in the past, I can attest that he not only flies but can shoot lasers out of his eyes while reciting pi to 1000 places. (It’s true! Would I lie to you?) And the other 2011 GenCon Guests of Honor are EVER MORE AWESOME than that, I’m sure.

For those of you who didn’t go, here’s the list of 2011 GoHs:

  • Wolfgang Baur
  • Jeff Neil Bellinger
  • Ryan Dancey
  • Jack Emmert
  • James Ernest
  • Matt Forbeck
  • Mike Gray
  • Will Hindmarch
  • Brian Lewis
  • Gary M. Sarli
  • Stan!
  • Greg Stolze
  • Daniel Solis
  • Margaret Weis
  • Tracy Hickman
  • Jeff Miracola (Artist Guest of Honor)

Even so, I was disappointed when I was flipping through the program to note that of the 16 Guests of Honor, only one GoH – Margaret Weis – is a woman. And I can’t help but ask myself – where are the women?

BUT WUNDERGEEK, I’m sure you’re saying. BUT WUNDERGEEK – GAMING WAS INVENTED BY MANLY MENZ AND THE GUESTS OF HONOR ARE GAMING PIONEERS AND THUS WILL BE MENZ AND NOT WIMMINZ. THAT’S NOT SEXIST, IT’S JUST THE WAY THE GAMING INDUSTRY IS.

And, sure, it’s hard to argue with the facts that the pioneers of the gaming industry were mostly male. Certainly one would expect a convention as large as GenCon to honor early pioneers, and it would be reasonable to expect a roster of Guests of Honor to skew in favor of men because of this. But I think it’s a little disingenuous to claim that a list of “pioneers” would be exclusively male. What, then, of Margaret Weis? Is she an anomaly? Is she the noteworthy exception? Is she the Betsy Ross of the gaming world?

Furthermore, the GenCon GoHs are not just people selected for their role as pioneers in the creation of the modern gaming industry. Some, like Gary M. Sarli and Brian Lewis were honored because of their recent and/or current work for mainstream game/toy companies. Which begs the question, again, where are the women? I’m quite aware of the low numbers of women working in the game industry, but they do exist. The big players like Wizards, Fantasy Flight, Hasbro, etc, can’t be exclusively staffed by men. And unless these companies are hiring women solely on the basis of their looks, it stands to reason that that at least some of the women within those organizations have to be doing work important enough to be recognized by being named a Guest of Honor. (Hell, even if they WERE hiring based on looks, they’d still have to have some stand-out female employees. Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that hot = dumb.)

Others, like Will Hindmarch, Greg Stolze, and Daniel Solis are writers and designers who have been working in indie RPG design and indie publishing. And if we’re going to open the doors to indie publishers, then the question becomes even harder to ignore. Where are the women? As someone who has dabbled in indie game design, I can tell you that there are A LOT of women doing fantastic work over here in indie game land who are all more than sufficiently awesome to be a GenCon Guest of Honor. Meg Baker, Emily Care Boss, Julie Bond Ellingboe, Elizabeth Shoemaker, Willow Palacek, Giulia Barbano – these are just women I can think of off the top of my head who would be good GoH choices, and just for indie RPG design. I know that there just have to be women working in other areas of gaming that I don’t participate in who are equally excellent in their own areas.

And if we’re going to include artists as possible Guests of Honor, then – DUDE, WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? There are a lot of fantastic male artists out there, sure. But I saw tons of women in this year’s art show whose art just knocked my socks off. If you’re going to pay someone’s way to GenCon, why not pay Sarah Frary, whose art totally and completely rocks my world? Or Stephanie Pui Mun Law, whose art has been a mainstay in the fantasy world for many years, even if her usual subjects are stereotyped as “female”. I’m not saying that OMG JEFF MIRACOLA SUX, here. I’m just saying, man. There are so many female artists whose stuff is just as good.

It makes me sad because a convention as large and as venerable can be seen as affirming the status quo of a male-dominated games industry. Even worse, it seems to lend credence to the idea that women just aren’t doing work worth honoring in the games industry, which isn’t true – though there are (I’m sure) plenty of people who would like to believe that’s the case so that they can continue to justify the sexism that runs rampant in game marketing and development.

Now I don’t think that any of this was intentional or malicious on the part of the GenCon organizers. But the problem is that gaming is a subculture that is steeped in sexism; being inclusive of women is something that takes effort and conscious thought. I’m sure they didn’t consciously decide to exclude women – it’s just a side effect of the fact that the gaming industry tends not to pay attention to those parts of gaming that women do get involved with. (Seriously, watch what happens in almost any gaming forum when the subject of casual gaming comes up and people rush to proclaim that casual gamers aren’t “real” gamers.)

The few women that do get attention are those who have become SO AWESOME that they simply can’t be ignored, like Margaret Weis. And even then, much as I think Margaret Weis is a badly needed role model, how much of her fame is due to being half of the Dragonlance Chronicles, rather than – at least in my opinion – the far more interesting game design work she’s done on her own post-Dragonlance?

I guess it goes without saying, but this is something I’m hoping to see the GenCon organizers work on improving for the future. Yes having a more balanced roster of Guests of Honor takes more work, but it’s something worth doing. GenCon has made noises about wanting to be more inclusive, and choosing to include more women in the lists of Guests of Honor would go a long way toward putting their money where their mouth is.