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.

Tuesday freebies: the useful stuff and weird crap edition

Before I get started, a self-promotion sidebar:

Last week I launched a new Patreon with the goal of being able to write serial fiction. It’s gone pretty well and is a little under 2/3 of the way toward my initial milestone goal that would let me start working on the project. (I’m not looking for much to get started; my initial milestone is about half of what I’d ever accept for freelance work.)

What is the project? In From the Cold is a novel that I have been planning for the last few months, based on a long-running campaign of Apocalypse World set in the Canadian arctic – albeit with many liberties taken and changes made for the needs of a different format. I have an experienced editor on board to make sure each chapter will be polished, and my goal is to publish chapters approximately once per month.

The Patreon is here, and you can read the first chapter for free here. Any help in sharing or tweeting the link would be greatly appreciated.

And now on to business

Things that suck

Today’s freebie is a a bit of a mixed bag. I have some useful things, and some… well… not so useful things. So let’s start with the useless and go from there.

First! This screenshot got shared on my Google+ and I am resharing it here with permission, simply because this is so stupid I can’t even:

femalebreadtagonist

What the actual fuck. I don’t know if this is a positive reflection on the desire for more female protagonists, an indictment on the overall LACK of female protagonists, or an overall indicator that the human race is just doomed. Of course, the saddest part is that even these stupid pieces of bread are still probably better designed than the vast majority of actually human female not-bread characters out there.

Next, a behavior protip by way of Twitter:

wtf

WHAT THE FUCK, INTERNET.

I never thought I would have to say this, but don’t fucking do this! Don’t do it! It is insanely creepy and makes you a terrible human!

Things that make up for the suck

I generally try to avoid feminist theory here on my blog, preferring to use language that is accessible outside of social-justice circles to the social-justice layperson. However, the idea of intersectionality is something that I try to strive for in my own feminism. So I am delighted to be able to link to this delightful video that uses pizza to explain intersectional feminism. It is both highly informative and very entertaining, so do go take four minutes to watch it.

Game Developers Conference happened recently, and at this year’s GDC there was a talk on how to deal with online harassment that was given by Neha Nair, Elizabeth Sampat, Zoe Quinn, and Donna Prior. There is a great overview of the talk here on Venture Beat, but really I recommend watching the entire talk itself on the GDC Vault. There is a lot of really great information presented by some really smart ladies who, unfortunately, have become experts through hard experience.

Have you been watching PBS Idea Channel on YouTube? No, well here are two videos that you should definitely watch, and then maybe scroll through their (LARGE!) list of videos to see what else jumps out at you.

First, this video uses the Sims to explain gender performance and the gender binary in an informative, really accessible way. It’s definitely the best explanation I’ve seen in quite a while. (Don’t be fooled by the long play time – the last 6 minutes are Q&A about the previous episode.)

You should also watch this video about how to create responsible criticism that honestly, I wish I could shove into the eyeballs of every person who claims that offensive shit is “just satire”. NO IT’S NOT. MINDLESS REPLICATION IS NOT SATIRE. WATCH THIS AND SHUT UP FOREVER.

My script for the next big AAA blockbuster

12action_reacher

The sun shining weakly through dirty mini-blinds wakes you. You grunt stoically and get out of bed, not paying attention to the stunningly gorgeous blonde sleeping next to you. She meant nothing. She could only ever mean nothing because you are hollow and empty inside.

You shuffle into the bathroom and lean on the sink, moodily looking into the mirror. Your grizzled reflection stares back at you, the image of a man who has seen too much and done terrible things. Handsome, generically white features and a square jaw twist into a scowl as you look at yourself. It is the beginning of a new day, and you are alone – except for that gorgeous blonde, who doesn’t count because she is not your wife, who is dead.

The gorgeous blonde sits up when you return and she is naked because that is how people have sex when they are heterosexual, manly men, and you definitely had sex last night because you are so very manly.

“Last night was great,” she purrs. “But I never did get your name.”

“That doesn’t matter.” You scowl. “None of it matters now.”

She sighs and motions for you to come back to bed, but you turn away and scowl. “The sex that we had last night was great, but it mean nothing because I am hollow and empty inside. No one can ever replace my wife, who is dead.”

The gorgeous blonde frowned. “I thought you said she was kidnapped and you were going to rescue her.”

“Yeah. That. Whatever.” You stare broodily into the middle distance for several minutes until she gets up to take a shower. No one understands you.

Guns. You have guns but you need more. You scowl as you think about how much you need guns. You always need more guns.

“I need more guns,” you growl to that annoying person who insists on tagging along with you, whom you definitely are not emotionally attached to because your wife is dead.

“More guns? You already have ten guns. How are you going to carry that many guns?”

He doesn’t understand. They never understand. Your life is void of meaning or joy and you just want to shoot things. “I have to avenge my wife, who is dead. They killed her in front of me and now my life is void of meaning and joy because she is dead.”

That annoying person rolls his eyes. “She’s probably not even dead, she’s just been kidnapped.” He adds something else, a pithy comment to lighten the mood but you don’t hear it because you are too busy thinking about guns.

“JUST GET ME MORE GUNS OR I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU,” you snarl, cursing because you are gritty and edgy and definitely not for kids. “I’ll kill you because I’ll do whatever it takes. I don’t care if it makes me a monster because morality is for people with wives, which I don’t have because she was killed.”

“You mean kidnapped.”

“Whatever. I’ve moved past that now.” You have too many people to shoot to worry about the small stuff now. “Just get me more guns.”

At last you’ve made it to where your enemy is making his last stand. It’s been a long road full of violence and death, and your hands are covered in blood but none of that matters.

You storm in, guns blazing, murdering everything that moves. One of the guards throws down his gun and holds up his hands, sobbing as he begs you to just let him live. You shoot him in the face and move on. He feels nothing now that he is dead, just like you. Your wife is dead.

You lose track of the number of people you kill before you finally make it to the room where your enemy is. There is a woman behind him who is tied to a chair, but you don’t pay any attention to her because she is not important. You have to avenge your wife, who is dead.

“I am here to get revenge for my wife,” you grunt. “Who is dead.”

“I’m not dead,” the woman in the corner says. “I’m right here.”

You grit your teeth, too focused on your enemy to listen to some woman. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t deserve her because she was a shining being too good for this sinful world, and I will make you pay for killing her.”

“I’m quite alive, actually.”

Your enemy smirks. “Don’t you realize? This was all just a test. A test which you passed with flying colors.”

You scowl, mostly because that’s the only facial expression you’re capable of anymore.

“Yes, that’s right. I created you in a lab to be the perfect soldier. And now that you’ve come back to me, we will–”

“Shut up,” you say as you shoot him in the face. He falls over, gurgling, and dies. After everything that has happened, your enemy is gone and your journey is over, but you feel nothing. You haven’t felt anything since your wife died.

“Aren’t you going to untie me?” the woman in the chair asks.

You think about your lost wife and wish she could be here to share this moment with you. You almost shed a tear, but you clench your fists and think about punching kittens until the feeling passes, except that you don’t have those anymore now that your wife is dead.

“Nathan? Are you even listening?”

“That person doesn’t exist anymore,” you rasp. “He is dead, like my wife.”

“Except I’m not dead.”

You look sternly into the middle distance. She doesn’t understand. No one can ever understand. “Allison,” you whisper as you turn to leave.

“Hey! Hey! Untie me already!”

There is blood on your hands that can never be removed, and you are alone. So, so alone. “I will never forget you,” you promise as you walk back down the hallway toward the stairs that will take you to the surface.

“Nathan? Nathan!”

-fin-

I enjoy having unpopular opinions

There’s this weird thing that happens where something I wrote a year ago (or two, or three) doesn’t get much attention at the time that I write it, but then someone on Reddit (or Twitter, but usually Reddit) finds it and posts a link and all of a sudden I get a flurry of views and nasty comments about GOD HOW WRONG AND AWFUL I AM.

This has actually happened a few times with my post about the ways in which The Last of Us could have been better, which is especially amusing given that I wrote that post after writing my post about the reasons why I loved The Last of Us to little bitty pieces. But apparently, expressing criticism of a thing completely invalidates any other statements you might make about the thing and I should have known that. Because saying “here’s how thing thing I love could have been even better” is the same as saying “here is a thing that should be destroyed with fire and if you like it you should feel bad because you are bad.”

And I thought that if people are determined to misread me writing about a thing that I actually really, really liked, well shit. Why don’t I at least give these guys some decent ammunition?

So with that in mind…

Unpopular opinion the first: Violence is boring

VIOLENCE IS BORING.

And games where the system or mechanics exist only to create violence? Those games are boring as shit. Hell, I’ll go even further and say that any piece of media centered on violence and/or murder and nothing else is just really, really dull.

For example – this weekend, at the insistence of a friend, I watched John Wick, which is basically 20 minutes of Keanu Reeves being sad about his dead wife (always with the dead wives[1]…) and then like 1 hour of Keanu Reeves just straight-up murdering like a jillion guys, interspersed with people speaking subtitled Russian. Except it was even more boring than how I made it sound, because he didn’t even go on a murderfest because of his wife, it was because someone killed his dog and stole his car – which for some reason inspired this total murderpalooza that happened while Keanu Reeves displayed absolutely no facial expressions. ACTING! And Christ it was So. Goddamn. Boring. It wasn’t shocking or edgy or any of that. It was just the dullest fucking thing I’ve watched in at least a year.

Increasingly – how I feel about John Wick is how I also feel about games.

I’m not saying because I think violence in games is evil and it should go away forever! I was part of the first generation of people to grow up playing video games with explicitly graphic violence beyond just a few red pixels[2] – so it’s certainly something I’m used to seeing.  Plus I’m addicted to Final Fantasy and BioWare games, which means I’ve played a lot of games that feature violence. But unless a game brings some significant not-violence gameplay to the table along with the “murder a ton of [bandits / orcs / demons / robots / aliens / zombies / whatevers]”, I’m just plain not interested.

Call of Duty? Counter-Strike? Hell, even any of the Hitman games? Yeah I have less than zero interest in ever playing them. BioWare at least brings relationships, romance, sex, diplomacy, and alliance-building to its games, and advancing the game means you have to take breaks from murdering all the things in order to deal with the talky bits – which are just as important as the murdery bits. And even despite my deep-seated love of BioWare games, I’m finding the gameplay of Cities: Skylines more engaging and compelling than Dragon Age: Inquisition right now[3].

The same goes for tabletop games. If the rules support only killing things and maybe taking their stuff? I’m just not interested. So things like Warhammer? War Machine? Yawn. No thanks. And even D&D I find I’m increasingly bored with. There’s very little room for innovation in tabletop murder/violence-simulators these days. The design stuff that excites me are the people working on different ways of telling stories that aren’t centered on violence.

But wait, there’s more!

Now that I’ve said I don’t like violence in games, that’s pretty much the same as admitting that I’m not a real gamer, right? However, I’m still concerned that these might not be grounds enough for you to dismiss me, here are some additional opinions that I hold that you can use to completely discount anything I have to say from now on.

I am bad at being a gamer (in the spirit of #badatfandom)

We ❤ Katamari is a better game than anything made by Ubisoft

For that matter, so is Bejeweled Blitz.

So is Angry Birds.

Hell, so is Triple Triad.

I hate every Final Fantasy before 7.

I didn’t finish FF6 because I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.

Final Fantasy X-2 is a fucking masterpiece and I will cut anyone who says it’s not.

Payne forever and always.

I would rather play Chocobo Hot and Cold for three hours than play a tabletop minis game.

I would rather do laundry than play Warhammer.

I would rather clean my bathroom than play StarCraft.

I hate playing D&D and wouldn’t be sad if I never played it again.

That said, point buy all the way. Random stat rolling is for chumps.

Larry Elmore’s art is okay, I guess, but it’s really not my cup of tea.

Despite having written for Vampire, I’ve never played a tabletop WoD game and I don’t really mind that.

Steampunk is not a genre, it’s an aesthetic, and a baffling one at that.

No BioShock isn’t some deeply philosophical journey. It’s just Ayn Rand plus bazookas.

I enjoy things inspired by Cthulu far, far more than I enjoy anything that actually adheres to the mythos. For that matter, I don’t ever intend to read any Lovecraft.

I only buy one or two roleplaying games per year, and I’ve only ever backed two KickStarters.

I think origin stories are tedious and boring.

I would kill Ashley every time. In a heart beat. EVERY TIME. Don’t like Kaidan? Don’t care. At least he’s not some xenophobic asshole.

I romanced Kaidan.

Peter Molyneux’s games aren’t that great.

The last decent fighting game was Soul Calibur 2. Everything after that is dead to me.

I’ve never played a Zelda game.

Kirby is more interesting than Link.

I only played 3 hours of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I found it tedious and boring.

I played 10 hours of Skyrim. I found it tedious and boring also.

I played in a Vampire LARP for 12 years and I still think that the system is complete fucking gibberish.

The “dumbed down” gameplay of Civ 5 (before the expansions) was better than any of the Civ games that came before it.

Xenogears/Xenosaga are terrible terrible games and I would rather do just about anything than play them.

The exploration in Dragon Age: Inquisition is way, way more fun than the combat.

Describing something as “gritty”, “dark”, or “grim” is the perfect way to get me to never ever play it

[1] Jesus. It’s enough to make me say that any movie where a wife/mother dies in the first 20 minutes is automatically a bad movie. That shit is so overused it’s just plain BAD WRITING.

[2] I remember specifically promising my mother to never become an axe murderer if she would let me buy Mortal Kombat.

[3] Though to be fair, that’s probably because DA:I is hands down the worst PC port I’ve ever played. The UX is SO SO BAD.

Monday Freebie: the entitled douchebro edition

Well, folks. I had intended to start working on a new post today, but the world’s worst headache has reduced me to pasting links into a textbox, so I’ve given up and decided to do a freebie linkspam instead.


 

The incomparable Jay Smooth talking about beating what he calls the Little Hater – the voice that tells us that we are not good enough and no one could possibly find our art valuable. This is something that pretty much every creative person I know struggles with, myself included.

 

25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male. This is an excellent, excellent video about the kinds of privilege that male gamers experience in gaming spaces, and is an excellent resource if you find yourself getting into an argument with someone who confuses privilege with special treatment.

 

Okay, this has nothing to do with social justice – it’s just really flipping cool. Are you the kind of nerd who has ever wanted to create a planet, only it seems like too much work, and then you find out that someone wrote a free planet-generation tool that does all the work for you and you get super excited even though you don’t really know what you’d use such a tool for? …I mean. [cough cough] Not that would ever be that nerdy, but I hear that some of my readers are. Nerds.

 

Congrats on your opinion. This excellent post by Prolost’s Stu Maschwitz is a thing that should be enshrined in geek canon forever. In particular, it’s written about lens flares in JJ Abrams’ Trek movies, but it could just as easily be about women having Patreons or really whatever nerd thing it is that you happen to get in someone’s face about. GO READ IT.


And now a thing that requires a little background.

So over the weekend, the somewhat-infamous James Desborough – a game designer who has been a vocal supporter of #GamerGate and who even tried to make #tabletopgate a thing (yes really) – published a particularly tasteless #GamerGate card game in which one has to battle unethical SJWs by stalking, harassing, and doxxing them. The venue he chose to do this on was Drive Thru Cards, which has an automated publishing process for publishers who have previously published titles with them.

Considering that a lot of publishers who use Drive Thru Cards/Drive Thru RPG/One Bookshelf to publish their content are also people who have been the targets of #GG’s harassment and doxxing, naturally there was swift and immediate backlash against the game; many publishers sent complaints to DTRPG saying that they would not continue to use DTRPG’s services if the game wasn’t pulled – which it was, and quite quickly. (Kudos to DTRPG for dealing with it so quickly over a weekend, no less.)

Of course, a lot of people got terribly upset about this awful, awful ceeeeensoooorshiiiiiip. So here are some things that summarize the situation better than I could in my be-headached state. (No, YOU’RE making up stupid words on the internet.)

First, Matt McFarland knocks it out of the park on his blog in explaining why DTRPG pulling the game IS NOT CENSORSHIP ZOMG READ A DICTIONARY. Also, he talks about why the response by some people who actually harassed and doxxed the owner of DTRPG was not fucking okay. (Spoiler alert: DOXXING IS NEVER FUCKING OKAY)

Second, this post by Fred Hicks is worth reading as a response to the fallout from the game being pulled. Apparently, because some of the Evil Hat crew had the nerve to talk publicly about how – hey, if this stays up we should evaluate if we want Evil Hat’s brand to be tarnished by association, a bunch of anti-SJWs got all het up and decided to harass Fred Hicks, because clearly this was solely his fault and CENSORSHIP and also BULLYING. So then they got a bunch of people to harass Fred when he was just trying to do real life shit, because ETHICS. Or something.

…I’m going back to bed and coming out never.

On being a “professional victim”

I’ve been pretty quiet the last two weeks, and I apologize for that. I meant to get one more post up in November, but, well, that didn’t so much happen. Partly it’s because I was pouring a lot of writing energy into finishing a first draft of my current game project! Which I am excited about! But partly it’s because I’ve found myself second-guessing everything I’ve wanted to write about.

Writing about Bayonetta because a bunch of dudes got mad about me having opinions on Bayonetta was an easy choice. I mean, oh, you don’t like me writing about Bayonetta? Well here, have some more unsolicited opinions about Bayonetta, since that’s how I roll. (I’m contrary like that.) But how to move on from there? Well… that’s more difficult.

The problem is that I actually read about 19 pages of this weird anti-me hatefest (which was a terrible idea, seriously, don’t ever do that. What were you thinking past me??), and since then I’ve felt stuck as to how to pick a topic for a new post that wouldn’t play into the narrative that has been constructed against me, which has gotten so sprawling and disjointed that literally anything I write here can be co-opted as ammunition.

It can be pretty unnerving knowing that anything you write can then be twisted to support someone’s arguments that you are a: homophobic, anti-feminist, sex-negative, compulsively lying, egomaniacal, unethical feminazi fascist who harasses people and is so delusional that someone should really have me involuntarily committed for my own good. (To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t been accused of being racist yet. Although given that my first published game, Thou Art But A Warrior, is about Muslims, I fully expect that to be added to the litany at some point in the future.) Seriously, how do you keep that level of bullshit from messing you up once in a while?

But in the end, I have to choose between giving the trolls new ammunition (everything is ammunition. Everything.) and remaining silent, which I’m not willing to do. So instead, I’m going to rant a bit about Patreon, and about my least-favorite new slur being hurled at women, queer people, and PoC with Patreons – “professional victim”.

First: Patreons by women, queer people, and PoC are the devil

When Patreon was just starting to develop a head of steam among my indie game design circles, the earliest adopters that I saw jumping on board were predominantly white and male. To the point where it initially made me pretty uneasy as a new thing that was happening, as I was afraid that it was going to turn into yet another way in which the voices of white men were going to be privileged over other voices:

plus

However, after a while I was able to get over the idea that I didn’t have anything of worth to offer potential patrons and I put up a Patreon of my own. As did other not-white-dude creators that I knew! And much to my delight, Patreon became a vital platform in enabling otherwise marginalized voices to create things they were passionate about and receive the support that they needed to do so.

Which is naturally about when there was a bit of a paradigm shift in how individual Patreons were talked about online.

Now instead of being universally lauded as a “revolutionary new crowdfunding model”, very often the reaction to an individual Patreon depends greatly on the identity of the person running it. Are they white and male? Excellent! Carry on! You use this new crowdfunding tool to make the things you want to make, you bold and visionary content creator you!

But wait! Is that Patreon being run by a woman? Or a PoC? Or a queer person? Or – gasp – someone who represents a combination of some or all of those traits? Then it is a TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE! Legit just the worst! Because mumble mumble ethics and mumble mumble other reasons!

Seriously, it’s a little baffling how incredibly offended some people get about the fact that this blog is Patreon supported. Despite the fact that everything that I accept Patreon funds for writing is published free of charge here on my blog, which means that anyone who cares to can read my blog without needing to contribute a single red cent, it’s somehow the absolute worst that I have sixty seven whole patrons who contribute varying amounts of money per unit content generated. THE WORST! How dare I take people’s money in return for expressing opinions! FACISM.

… [ahem]

The fact is that I use my Patreon money to justify the time and energy that I put into writing content here, time that could otherwise be spent on other paying projects. And I fail to understand just why that’s such a terrible thing. Despite that my average monthly revenue has increased about 50% from when I first re-launched GMMaS, I’m still not raking in huge butt-piles of money. On average I’m making about 2/3 of what it costs to keep my kid in daycare – which is only one of many new, exciting, and completely non-optional child-related expenses.

And for the most part, that’s the sort of shit that a lot of Patreon dollars get used for – the daily shit you have to do just to stay afloat. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but being a Millennial is fucking hard. We don’t have any careers, housing fucking sucks, we’re going bankrupt getting the education we need to compete, and the Boomers are never, ever, ever going to retire. (Never.) So anything that allows people the breathing room they need to make art instead of spending potential creative energy just fucking surviving is something that we should be celebrating!

But of course, since the success of Patreon as a platform means the increasing prominence of female, queer, and minority voices… WELL. We can’t have that, now can we!

Second: “Professional victim” is so fucking silencing I can’t even

When I started hammering out the initial outline for this post, I knew that I had enough content to justify making a paid post. And yet, the idea of making a paid post taking on the idea of Patreon creators as “professional victims” was pretty terrifying! Because of course, the two biggest targets of this new “professional victim” label are Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian. Both of whom are women I admire tremendously and look up to, but whose example I desperately do not want to emulate. So when “professional victim” was recently added to the constructed narrative circulating against me, it was… unnerving to say the least.

I was sufficiently aggravated that I took to venting on twitter:

tweets
Tweets are in reverse chronological order, because twitter is dumb

There is a huge problem with calling women like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn (and, to a lesser extent, myself) “professional victims”. When you extend that logic to its natural conclusion, that means that the moment any not-white-dude has the temerity to accept crowdfunding monies in exchange for a good or service, they automatically forfeit any right to speak openly about the abuse that they receive as a result.

Which is, of course, complete horse shit. Not to mention that “professional victim” is a term very often hurled by #GamerGaters, or at least people who support #GamerGate – despite their claims of being concerned primarily about “ethics in game journalism”. (But then, #GamerGate has always been singularly blind to the hypocrisy displayed by a campaign of harassment designed to silence and discredit women that simultaneously purports to be about ethics.)

However, just the very idea of “professional victim” is very toxic, and can very often be incredibly silencing. I know it’s something that I wrestle with all the damn time in writing this blog – the fear that I will drive away patrons if I write “too many” posts about gendered harassment. When deciding what topic to write about next, in the back of my head there is always the calculus of “how many posts have I written about a specific game or piece of game art since the last time I talked about this” and “should I set this aside until I’ve put more non-harassment-focused stuff out there?”. Despite very much wanting to speak out against the sort of harassment that Zoe and Anita (among really so many others) have faced, it’s hard to for me believe that me talking openly and honestly about my experiences is something that has any real worth.

“Professional victim” is a term that is also brutally effective in dismissing someone’s worth, not only as a creator but as a human being. When someone is a “professional victim”, literally any sort of behavior against them is okay, because any abuse perpetrated against them is something that they were asking for in the first place. “Professional victim” is the “what were you wearing” or “how much did you drink” of the internet – a blanket permission to engage in toxic misogyny without any real fear of negative consequence.

So the fact that I have written paid posts in the past about harassment I’ve received, and that I am writing this post now, and likely will do more such posts in the future? That’s a hard, scary thing, friends. Because that only reinforces the “professional victim” aspect of the constructed narrative against me, and as Anita Sarkeesian has excellently discussed, once the narrative that has been constructed against a person reaches a certain critical mass, it no longer matters what the facts are because the myth attains a life of its own and nothing you say or do can ever slay that myth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

good_depictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

loved-oh-snap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Bayonetta 2 and Female Sexuality in Video Games [TW]

[TW: The first part of this post contains some content looking at rape-as-punishment-of-in-game-failure, as well as a link to a rapey cut scene.]

Recently, I had a decent-sized traffic spike on my old post about Bayonetta and the male gaze… from three years ago. (Usually that post averages 200-300 direct links per month; in October of this year it got 3700+.) Apparently, a bunch of guys on Reddit got really sore that I said nasty things about Bayonetta and hate-read the article so they could talk about how terrible I was.

…weird. And they say the feminists are just “looking for things to be offended by”.

My reaction initially was along the lines of ‘oh well – I feel pretty much everything I said about Bayonetta back then certainly applies to the new game’, so I’d planned on leaving well enough alone. But a few things caught my attention recently that made me think it would be worth revisiting. So first, some thoughts, and then a redraw.

Part the first: you can oppose #GamerGate and still be misogynist

One of the things that made me want to revisit Bayonetta is that her creator, Hideki Kamiya, has actually gained a small amount of notoriety as a game dev opposed to #GamerGate who attracted moderate levels of harassment. (And by that I mean that he was harassed by #GG proponents, but certainly not anything comparable to what women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have faced.)

However, it’s very important to remember that even though he opposes #GamerGate, Hideki Kamiya is still very much a misogynist. Here are just a few things he’s said about Bayonetta in the past:

Well, if I had to pick one, I would say it is the scene where Joy first appears in the game, with Bayonetta and her impostor getting into a pose battle. That was my way of expressing the feminine notion that, to one woman, all other women are enemies. Even women walking by each other will check out what the other is wearing, and might smolder a bit with antagonism. Women are scary. (source: Bayonetta dev: to one woman, all other women are enemies)

I strongly feel that women outside should dress like her. Like, when she does a hair attack, you’d see the skin. I want women to wear fashion like that. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

But anyway that’s how we’re creating Bayonetta’s moves and all that, and that’s actually the most fun part of this game, thinking about all that stuff. So you will be able to see what everybody in the team likes in a girl from the finished project. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

[On whether her outfit really is just hair] Yes, completely hair. That means that she’s actually naked, but naked because that’s just hair, that’s not clothing. She has strong magical powers, she’s using her strength, her magical power to keep her hair on her body, to make it form an outfit. So when she gets weak or something, she might just lose her magical power, and if that happens…you know what that means. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

In other words, Hideki Kamiya is someone who has zero problems objectifying women, whether in real life or in fiction. He also has designed Bayonetta explicitly to appeal to male sexuality, and has no problem equating a woman’s worth with her sexual appeal.

Still, some people point to Bayonetta as a character to be celebrated because empowerment! And choice feminism! Bayonetta’s chosen to be this way!

But that ignores the fact that Bayonetta is not real. All of the choices she makes – how to dress, how to act, who to flirt with and when – are actually being made by her creator, whose only priority is to present Bayonetta as a sexual object that is pleasing to men. Her sexuality isn’t presented as something to be celebrated – it’s something that is explicitly punished.

Part of Bayonetta 2 includes a secret fight against Rodin, a character from the first game who is a friend of Bayonetta’s. Unfortunately, the sequence that plays if you actually lose this boss fight is… suuuuper rapetastic.

If you win the fight, Bayonetta doesn’t have sex with Rodin. Sex is only something that happens if you lose. And yeah, a lot of people would argue that the flirtatious dialogue at the beginning of the scene means that it’s not rape. I mean, how can it be rape if she flirted with him, right? But that’s just victim-blaming of the worst sort. I point again to the fact that Bayonetta only has sex with Rodin if she loses; if sex can only happen with violence, that looks an awful lot like rape.

And then there’s just the whole way it’s presented. Bayonetta is naked lying face down, trying to cover herself while Rodin smokes a cigarette. All of which really just screams rape to me – especially when you consider that “rape” is (disgustingly) still widely used as a synonym for “defeat” by many gamers.

I hate Bayonetta as a character and all of the hollow, awful stereotypes about female sexuality that she represents, but I still find this sequence utterly repugnant.Yes Bayonetta is presented as in charge and blatant in her sexuality. Yes she is aggressively flirtatious. Yes she dresses provocatively. But she is not “asking for it”. No woman is ever “asking for it”.

This is categorically not what female empowerment looks like.

Maybe Kamiya isn’t a misogynist in the sense of hating women. I really can’t say – I’ve never met the guy, nor am I ever likely to have the chance to. But in terms of being someone who promotes the objectification of women and perpetuates toxic sexist stereotypes? Absolutely he is a misogynist.

Besides, have you seen her character design?

Part two: everything about Bayonetta is wrong

So here’s the image that I decided to work with:

20140615210025!Cereza_Bayonetta_2_renderHoo boy. Looking at this, I’m actually a little terrified of Hideki Kamiya, because Bayonetta isn’t even remotely human. Clearly Kamiya has a fetish for weirdly elongated, rubber-boned snake women. Literally every part of her body is wrong.

Let’s start with the easy part. Heads:

Bayonetta-heads

Bayonetta is a whopping nine heads tall. So if you at Bayonetta and think “wow, her head looks really small”, that’s because it’s weirdly tiny. The average human is 7 heads tall, with half a head variance on either side. That’s an extra two heads of height!

Furthermore, Bayonetta’s legs by themselves are 6 heads tall. So just like Hyung Tae Kim’s anatomy nightmares, you could put Bayonetta’s head on just her legs and it would be as tall as a real human. Brr. (I did try to draw that, by the way, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d hoped.)

When doing redraws, parsing the anatomy is usually pretty simple. But with Bayonetta, I found myself stumped and had to resort to drawing part of her skeleton to figure out what was going on:

Bayonetta-skeleton

Oh god. My head hurts.

Looking at this, about the only thing that I can give Bayonetta’s creators for is that she does, at least, have a ribcage and internal organs. However, Bayonetta’s spine is just ridiculous – it’s bent at a 130 degree angle there. And sure, there are contortionists out there who can sit on their own heads, but even they can’t fold their spine sharply in half in the middle.

There’s also this confusing thing that happens in order to elongate Bayonetta’s breasts (we’ll come back to that in a second) that results in her having the world’s longest sternum. The average human sternum is 17cm (6.69 inches) – and is significantly shorter in women. But despite spending way too much time trying to figure out a base for an estimate, all I can say is that her sternum is just too long, okay?

Her arms are also weirdly messed up:

Bayonetta-boobs-elbow

 

To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck is happening with her right arm, other than her shoulder is completely dislocated. I can partially dislocate one of my shoulders (on purpose) and I still can’t reach backwards that far. As for the rest of her arm… Man, I don’t know. I mean, it looks like it might be correct? But the foreshortening combined with the extreme anatomy distortion makes it really hard to tell.

As for her left arm, it’s waaaay hyper-extended. Now I’ll admit that it’s actually not beyond the realm of anatomical possibility – I have a few friends with hyper-bendy elbows and they like to squick me out by bending them freakily. (Stop it bendy friends!) But a choice was clearly made to hyper extend the arm so that the foreshortened hand wouldn’t block the view of her breasts, which. Okay. I guess most dudes don’t share my squick over elbow hyper-extension, but it still strikes me as really weird.

And her breasts! (I said I’d come back to those…) I can’t get over how weird and elongated they are. They look like baguettes stapled to her torso and… just… what? What’s up with that? I mean, when’s the last time you heard a guy say “hey, look at the sub buns on that chick”? Never, that’s when. Because normal humans fetishize round breasts. Melons. Basketballs. Not baguettes.

But the thing I find most disconcerting of all is Bayonetta’s pelvis:

Bayonetta-pelvis

When I was drawing her skeleton, I was weirded out by how tall Bayonetta’s pelvis is. It just seemed out of proportion, and way too large in comparison to the ribcage. So I drew a perspective box around the pelvis, duplicated the layer, rotated it, and stuck it on top of the ribcage. And her ribcage is only a tiiiny bit bigger than her pelvis, which is just about a million kinds of wrong:
Human-SkeletonThe pelvis on this (real, not fake) skeleton is slightly more than HALF the height of the ribcage. It’s true that there is an awful lot of variance in the length of the human ribcage, but we’re not talking anywhere near enough variance to make Bayonetta’s freaky pelvis remotely plausible.

All of which leaves me incredibly stymied. Normally this is the point where I’d try to correct everything and redraw the figure over the original art with normal human proportions. But in this instance, I’ll concede defeat because really – what’s the point? When literally everything about Bayonetta is wrong, it seems easier to just point you to photos of Bayonetta cosplayers. (Who, it’s worth noting, still manage to be very sexy despite their handicap of having an “ordinary” human skeleton.)

Concluding thoughts

There’s a legal concept that I find useful in this situation – namely, fruit of the poison tree. Basically, Bayonetta is not an empowering feminist figure, because everything that she is has been tainted by the deeply-held misogyny of her creators. At no point does Bayonetta have any real agency over her sexuality because she is entirely fictional. Rather than being a celebration of female sexuality, Bayonetta is a shallow stereotype constructed out of sexist stereotypes and objectification who only serves as a mirror for the misogynist views of the people who designed her.

On #GamerGate and the impossibility of “just making games”

Hey, folks. So you’ll notice that there haven’t been any freebie linkspams for… a while. And that’s pretty much a direct result of #GamerGate, because everything that I would link to could be summarized as TL;DR HUMANS ARE AWFUL. Not to mention that it is not possible to put enough trigger warnings on even the not-terrible coverage of GG issues.

I’ve also been having a hard time finding the bandwidth to write here, despite the abundance of topics that I want to write about. I have friends that I want to interview about their positive work in games, there’s more analysis I want to do of the changing trends in Magic: The Gathering art direction, I’d like to noodle about some thoughts inspired by recent game projects on the intersection between social justice and game design. I mean, I have a fucking Patreon – you’d think it would be easier to find space to write here when I am literally getting paid to blog about the things that I am passionate about.

But friends, it’s been so hard.

We get told “just make games” or “just make art” like it’s supposed to be some kind of panacea. Like “just making games” will enable me to rise above the bullshit and transcend the awful with sheer awesome. And honestly, I would love, LOVE for that to be the solution. Nothing would please me more than being able to post a clever “haters gonna hate” meme and move on with my life.

But how can I “just make games” for a hobby that wants me to stop existing?

How can I “just make games” when “just making games” requires me to engage with a community that I don’t want my daughter to be a part of, and that I will do my best to hide her from when she is old enough to venture into online spaces. (Which, thankfully, is many years away yet.)

How can I “just make games” when hate and terror campaigns created to scare women out of gaming are triggering my anxiety and making it hard for me to just function day-to-day, let alone “just make games”.

For those of you who have never had to deal with anxiety, it’s fucking exhausting. And GG makes it literally impossible to know where the line is between “shut up brain, you’re being stupid again” and reasonable fucking caution.

Is enabling 2-factor authentication on my accounts needless paranoia, or reasonable caution? Who the fuck knows? When a co-worker discovered my blog, was I being an over-reacting paranoid weirdo when I asked him not to link it to a bunch of trolls? Or was I justified? Fuck if I know! When my name pops up on a forum that is well-known as a haven for misogynist tabletop gamers and I am called an “extremist”, am I making mountains out of molehills when that site’s presence in my blog’s referral links for the last month causes a vague, generalized dread whenever I check my site stats? Or is this something that I need to worry about?

I DON’T FUCKING KNOW ANYMORE.

People who say “it’s just on the internet” are not only completely out of touch with the reality of how modern life works, but they’re ignoring the real mental health consequences of these cyber harassment mobs. You don’t have to be directly targeted by them, either. Just the knowledge that they exist is a visceral threat. And when these mobs attack women that you respect, admire, and look up to – there’s a certain sense of inevitability. If I continue to walk down this path, it’s hard not to believe that this is what the future holds for me.

That is terrifying.

And it keeps me from doing the fucking work that needs to get done in order to “just make games”.

I have a KickStarter I need to be promoting more. That I’m proud of! Because it’s fucking awesome! And I have done some promotion work, but I’ve been chasing after “safe” audiences, because it’s not as worry-inducing as chasing potentially-hostile promotion sources for an explicitly social-justice-oriented game product, and hoping that the stats on funding and KickStarter are accurate and that momentum will get me over my funding goal.

I have things I want to blog about for an audience that has proven its interest and its willingness to support me with actual electronic moneyz, and lately I find myself writing out of a sense of obligation rather than real passion or excitement.

The fear, the anxiety, the need to detox and spend time doing and thinking about things that aren’t games – it all gets in the way of “just making games”.

And to those who say that I’m overreacting, that it’s all in my head, that it’s not a big deal, that “no one’s died yet” – that’s bullshit. At least one trans game dev, Kate von Roeder has committed suicide[1], and a mass shooting threat has forced Anita Sarkeesian to cancel a talk when the local law enforcement was unwilling to prevent attendees from bringing concealed weapons.

Let’s not forget that it was only several months ago that the Isla Vista shooter went on a killing spree after months of escalating online rhetoric about how much he despised and wanted to kill women. And it was nearly twenty-five years ago that the Montreal massacre resulted in the deaths of fourteen female engineering students at the hands of a man who blamed feminists for ruining his life.

So yeah, people have died. And more people might die. And that’s what every woman who works in games and is vocal about feminist issues deals with. The knowledge that speaking out comes with consequences, and it is impossible to know how steep those consequences will be.

So where does that leave me? For now, I’m still here. I’m still making games. I’m still blogging. My anxiety means that I’m not able to sustain the level of output that I know I’m capable of when I’m feeling well and am not having active symptoms, but I’m in the process of getting help and am trying not to beat myself up too much. I’m forcing myself to engage in self-care and am doing what I can.

Maybe some day we’ll be at a point where I can “just make games”. But that’s not a future I see arriving any time soon.

[1] I’ve heard reports of a second trans dev committing suicide, but the Google search results are too toxic for me to face today. So I guess it’s a good thing I’m just a blogger and not a real journalist or something.

D&D 5E: Why so many wimmenz??

I’ve actually avoided writing about the new edition of D&D, even though I have a lot of positive feelings toward it, mostly because of having my name tied to the shitstorm that was Consultancygate – despite never actually saying anything publicly about Consultancygate. (Other than referencing that it was a thing that was stupid. Go ahead and google if you need to. I’ll wait.)

But now that’s died down, albeit mostly because a bunch of shitstains succeeded in creating an even bigger and more embarrassing faux-“scandal” that’s currently being used to harass women and “SJWs” in gaming (ie #GamerGate or #GamerGhazi or #notyourshield or #SockPuppetGate or #WhateverTheFuckTheyreCallingItNow), I figured now would be a good time to write about my impressions of the new edition.

Or, wait, no. Scratch that. What I meant was that some butthead said some wrongheaded stuff about the art direction and I felt compelled to lay a smackdown[1]:

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This quote is taken from an RPGnet thread, which has since been locked (thankfully) (@tablehop is not the butthead being referenced, I am saying the opposite of that)

UGH WIMMENZ WHY DOES THE NEW D&D HAVE SO MANY OF THEM THEY ARE OBJECTIVELY TERRIBLE AMIRITE AND ALSO BROWN PEOPLE DON’T RUIN MY FANTASY ABOUT MAGIC AND DRAGONS WITH BROWN WOMEN WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU

Jesus, internet. Could you maybe try to be less awful some time?

So here we go. Because it’s a thing worth saying, here are some reasons why D&D 5E is great and is totally a thing that tabletop gaming needed. (Spoilers: it’s the art)

Guys the art is so good I just can’t even

In the interests of full disclosure, I will mention that D&D really doesn’t mesh with my play preferences[2], and although I do own the PHB 3E and 4E, I will not be purchasing 5E. But this is the first time that I’m actually sad about that, because YOOUUU GUYYYYYSSSS. LOOK AT THE ART YOU GUYS:

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These are taken from different spreads

WUT. Fully-clothed, actively posed, heroic looking women? Brown people? Heroic looking brown women? NO BOOBPLATE??? [swoon]

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From LEFT to RIGHT: art for the Soldier, the Hermit, the Paladin, and the Tiefling

CHECK IT OUT, A HALF-ORC PALADIN. This is something I never expected to see! The treatment of race in the Forgotten Realms setting has always been… problematic at best. Orcs and half-orcs have always been depicted with traits that read as a very thinly veiled analogue for blackness. So to see Paladins, who are the literal embodiment of good, being represented by a righteous-as-fuck looking half-orc? That’s revolutionary!

Also, taking a step back, look at the characters being depicted here. These characters all come from obviously distinct cultures. So not only do we have group portraits that include a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but we also have PoC adventurers who come from obviously non-white cultures, rather than being rolled into some White Fantasy Crypto-European culture.

Which is really just the best, because yay social justice! But also because White Fantasy Crypto-Europe has gotten boring as shit. So the fact that WoTC has taken effort to portray a variety of cultures that go beyond different flavors of white people is amazing, because it’s new and exciting.

And to anyone who is complaining that not-sexualized women are so booooring, I submit the following as evidence:

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Illustration: the Bard, from the PHB

BEST. BARD. EVER.

Seriously, look at that cocky smile. Look at that badass outfit. LOOK AT THE GUITAR. How could you not want to play David Bowie with pointy ears? What is wrong with you? Are you some kind of terrorist? Some kind of awful, freedom-hating anti-Elf-Bowie terrorist?

Seriously, though, look at the image on the title page – the very first piece of art you see when you crack the book:

PH Teaser 1

Holy crap! That is one seriously heroic-looking black guy, beating the ever-loving shit out of a group of goblins! And we’re not talking “slightly tan skintone” black guy, either. Rather, this is a very-dark North-African-looking guy looking totally heroic and not-at-all like a villain, which is just really refreshing. Because all-too-often in fantasy artwork, people with this sort of skin tone are depicted as either 1) not focal or 2) evil. (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, THE DROW.)

But awesome depictions of PoC aren’t just limited to men. Nope! There are plenty of badass PoC ladies too:

WoC

That’s right! The iconic human is a black woman! A badass, fighter-y black woman to boot. I guess you could say that makes her a social justice warrior?[3]

Now all of this isn’t to say that there aren’t still things that could use improvement. For instance:

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…it’d be nice if this group shot included some non-white folks. (Although I’ll admit that the old elf guy reads as white to me, but his skintone is also a bit ambiguous?) But even saying that directed at one illustration feels like nitpicking; there’s a good mix of gender and ages depicted and no ridiculous boobplate, and the rest of the book is obviously making a clear statement that THIS WORLD IS INCLUSIVE DAMMIT.

Why we’re winning the culture war (in which I drop names)

To see this kind of dedicated effort to Not Failing At Art from what is arguably the flagship product of tabletop gaming is just the best. It feels like a vindication of everything that I’ve been doing here. And in some ways, it sort of is.

I’ve posted earlier about how I got a chance to have lunch with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls at this year’s GenCon:

Mike was very open about the difficulties that he’s faced in trying to push inclusivity in the game products he’s worked on. He talked about how he’d been assuming diversity of representation was the default, only to realize later that there were many others who had assumed the opposite, who feared they might face consequences if they pushed their content “too far”. And now he’s working to actively make D&D products more inclusive going forward (something which I will write about in further detail later).

Another topic of conversation that we talked a fair bit about was how they’ve been trying to solve the problem of diverse art by creating a list of fictional cultures inspired by real-world counterparts and then making that part of the specs handed out to the artists. Instead of asking an artist to give them an illustration of a “human warrior”, they are asking for a “human warrior from [Fictional Culture]” to ensure that the art that is handed in isn’t mostly just white folks.

It also sounds like they’re making a point of cracking down on ridiculously gratuitous sexualization when initial art drafts come in. Without going into potentially incriminating detail, Mike Mearls did tell us a pretty funny story about rejecting a piece of artwork that had humanoid breasts on a non-mammalian fantasy creature – which is heartening to hear! (One of my greatest disappointments regarding 4E was that female dragonborn were described textually as not being visually different from male dragonborn, only ALL THE DAMN ART gave them boobs. All of it.)

So to bring this back to Hates Women and Brown People in D&D Guy… Sorry, random awful person on the internet, but this bygone era that you long for, in which women and brown people are either objectified or ignored in D&D? That ship has sailed, and it’s not too likely to return. And frankly, I can only believe that that is a good thing.

[1] Don’t get me wrong, GG is still a total fucking shit show and anyone who seriously tries to advocate for it as a “real issue” after 3+ weeks of abuse that has actually driven women out of the industry is going to land themselves straight on my block list.

[2] I’ve played a fair amount of 3E and 4E, and a lot of 3.5E. But now if I’m going to play “killing things and taking their stuff” games, I’m much more likely to play Dungeon World or Descent.

[3] I’ll be here all week.