Stop Pitting Women Against Each Other

Discussing female representation in gaming art, especially tabletop role-playing games is complicated by a number of factors. One of the first issues is that it's often presented as a zero-sum discussion, leading people to react as if it's a conflict situation over limited resources rather than a cooperation situation where we could be improving things for everyone and even end up with more art.

It reminds me a lot of the Robbers Cave experiment done in the 1950s. During this experiment, boys were invited to camp out in a park. The first phase of the experiment involved the boys getting to know each other and forming a group. Unbeknownst to them, they were not the only group invited and during the second stage, they not only found out about each other, but were put into positions of conflict over limited resources. During this phase, they grew hostile to one another, especially when there was something that only one group could "win."

While there are definitely more than two groups when it comes to how female characters should be represented in art, I do think there's a generally feeling of limited resources when it comes to those representations. There are only so many books printed per year by the larger companies after all and while there's theoretically no cap on what small publishers can produce, there is a bit of a limit to how much money is available in the market.

We also know that a fair number of the marketing axioms over the past several decades, in particular the narrowing in on measurable demographics, tends to reinforce and add to the market for certain consumers while limiting the market of others. This trend is what Douglas Lowenstein, then President of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), was referencing in his 2005 state of the industry speech. People in public relations and marketing would continuously focus on a certain portion of the audience, reinforcing the belief that that audience was "core" and representative of the audience as a whole when the truth was that the audience targeted was 1) incapable of supporting the market on their own and 2) may not even constitute a plurality of the market. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the group they picked happened to be easier to market to and people from the other markets didn't complain enough for them to be forced to broaden their focus.

This combination of factors leads to a situation where people who feel adequately served by the status quo find it easier to be involved in the hobby and often feel that other people who want something different are their competition. It gets even more complicated because often the people currently here, especially in this case women, aren't even necessarily well-served by the current content but they are afraid of losing what they already have.

Add into this that women (at least in the US) are often taught to see each other as competition anyway and that ways of thinking and acting that fit into the feminine stereotype are often denigrated, and the situation has all the required elements to become intractable if not downright explosive. The conversation becomes hostile and combative rather than cooperative.

Take for instance how my arguments for a wider representation of female characters are often received as requests to exclude certain types of representation. I remember a few years ago on Twitter someone was arguing with me from the point of view that I was saying "no sexy art evah" and was surprised when I took a step back and said, "No, it's about the percentage of art that is sexy." He was further surprised when the percentage I said that would make me happy, say about 20% of female character art being meant to emphasize sexiness, was higher than his own.

The problem, as I see it, is that sexiness for female characters is still the default. This isn't some big controversial opinion. My detractors argue that this default setting is why we have it. They'll write long pseudo-scientific supposedly evo-psych treatises on it. Or often they just don't see anything wrong with it and, even when they do believe it's something that maybe should be changed, they suggest that asking artists to be aware of their own biases is a step too far (self-censorship!). No, no, in order to change the percentage we just need to hire artists who think in other ways, but heavens forbid that anyone point out that a particular artist has a tendency to draw characters in that way.

They often then point to the women who are seemingly satisfied by the status quo as a sword against those who are not being served by the market. Since we're artificially being limited to just one female viewpoint, those women then feel the need to defend what they already have. Thus the conversation gets derailed from the larger issue of how do we broaden representation to one where we're arguing for the existence of any one piece of art. Any attempt to explain the pattern using particular pieces of art as references becomes a fight over defending the existence of that piece (this, by the way, is why Anita Sarkeesian didn't list 3 games when asked to on the Colbert Report). The women who do like the piece feel attacked and lash out.

Another example of this had to do with Team Unicorn. The public face of Team Unicorn is conventionally attractive. This isn't a problem but in my extended circles became an issue when people started using them as the norm for how other women should think, act, and look. In fact, some people I know decided to use Team Narwhal as a counter, insinuating that unlike Team Unicorn, they were real.

These situations for a no win situation that those who want to continue the status quo continuously exploit. They set up certain women, those who they see as supportive of their position, as the "good ones," further reinforcing the us vs them mentality. We all know what happens to those women who stand up to this.

It needs to stop. We need to stop taking the bait when these people set up women as being in competition to one another. We need to learn to recognize when we are being baited like this. By doing this we can grow the pie. We can have a bigger market, potentially with more overall number of illustrations and chances for a diversity in representation. We can start cooperating and listening to one another.

We can even improve the existing representations. Take for instance how sex workers are often portrayed in games. I don't know many people who are sex workers who like how they are portrayed. But they also don't want to be erased. What if we could get to the point where we improve the depictions of sex workers while also diversifying how women are portrayed? Wouldn't that be an all-around win?

Let's stop setting women against each other and instead work together on meeting everyone's needs. Maybe we could have a world that looks something like this instead. (Love this t-shirt by the way) We will still have disagreements and even fights, but they will be because of irreconcilable views, not because we start off the conversation pitting women against each other.

PS: While not directly related, I thought this article about scheduling in polyamorous relationships is an interesting example of how what initially can look like a competition for limited resources can become a cooperative and even more fulfilling way of viewing the world.

The Purpose of Reviews

Recently I attended my aunt's birthday party. While I was there, I had the chance to talk to my cousin Christina and her friend. Both love games and were happy to tell me about what games the liked, which games they wish they could afford, and ask me for game recommendations. They also related their frustrations about games.

You see, both of them have physical conditions that make playing many games difficult. They can't afford more recent computers or consoles, let alone the types of controllers that would make it easier for them to play. I instantly remembered the AbleGamers website and suggested they check it out. I figured if anyone out there could give them the advice and information they needed, it would be them.

Imagine my great sadness this weekend when people started attacking the Able Gamers website because the charity did not want someone to fundraise for them under the GamerGate banner. I wasn't surprised by the obvious attacks, the "how dare they not accept our money" expressions of anger. I was surprised, but guessed I shouldn't have been, when they started going after the types of reviews that AbleGamers produces.

First, let's back up a bit. All reviews are, to some degree, arbitrary and/or subjective. For instance, I recently saw an argument that review scores should be tied to quantifiable items like number of found bugs, frame rate, etc. But really, that's just as arbitrary as saying it should be about the number of female characters or how many challenges can be solved in non-violent ways. Reviews say far more about the expected audience of the review than the game itself.

AbleGamers, as a website, has a rather specific audience. Their audience consist of game consumers who have specific requirements for their games that may not be covered by reviews from other outlets. Just like the average consumer needs to know the technical requirements of a game so that they don't buy games their system can't run, people with disabilities need to know if the game's physical requirements match their own proficiencies. If it doesn't, why should they spend the money on the game to be disappointed?

What this incident shows is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the nature of reviews and how a significant number of gamers care more about how games are talked about than they do about fellow gamers who have needs and tastes different than their own. Reviews should be about helping consumers find the games that meet their individual mix of wants and needs. Given how many people game, there is no way that one, unified set of reviews will do this. Reviews can and should be different from each other, talk about different points, even deduct points for things like racism, sexism, etc.

We, as the consumers, are then given the task of finding the reviewers who best deliver information pertinent to our tastes. Often this will mean a reviewer who matches our own tastes, but don't be surprised if a reviewer whose tastes are different from your own provide needed insight into a game.

That's what reviews should be. I think if people want something that compares what are essentially technical specs of the product, they should found something like Consumer Reports, a product testing company that rates and compares various products in a category against the same set of standards.

In the meantime, if you would like to support AbleGamers, you can donate here. They also have some great shirts available in their online store.

Moving Beyond Scorched Earth

Recently I talked about the dueling definitions of sexism. I'd like to talk about a related issue I encounter frequently, the belief that we should limit the use of the word sexist to those offenses egregious enough that we should take a scorched earth policy towards the action or event.


There are a few issues with this approach:

  • It leaves us without a term to use to describe arbitrary decisions or trends based on sex and/or gender that don't rise to the level of require a scorched earth policy.
  • It conflates labeling the behavior with how to respond to the behavior.
  • We're left with one response to sexist behavior, without any insight into whether or not that response has a positive impact.

This definition of sexism causes much of the defensive behavior we often complain about because the originator is now anticipating a scorched earth response towards them.

Others, including myself, would prefer that we label behavior what it is and then decide the best way to deal with that behavior. Basically, we would decide whether or not the behavior is sexist and then determine what to do. The decisions on both the definitions and the remediation (if any) can be decided by individuals as they see fit.

This would accomplish a few things:

  • Lower defensiveness because potential punishment is not implicit in the argument. I can say, "Yeah, I did a sexist thing" without worrying about people automatically ostracizing me.
  • Allow for us to more easily see the more insidious forms of sexism since we will no longer be concerned about whether or not they meet a certain threshold of severity. This could help in areas of institutionalized sexism.
  • Allow for a wider range of fixes. For instance, sometimes just talking about the issue can help. Additionally, acknowledging that something is sexist can help with another common issue, that when people eventually do speak up, the response to them often feels worse the original incident.

Being able to talk about the issues without implying punishment or requiring it to meet a arbitrary threshold of severity, we can start to identify the parts of our media and our society that create or amplify sex- and gender-based discrimination and oppression.

While we're on the subject of punishment, something else that often annoys me in these conversations is the conflation of ethical with legal. While there can be overlap between the two, for instance murder is both unethical and illegal, there are plenty that are separate. Many incidents of sexism are unethical but not illegal. Legality is often, but not always, tied to the seriousness of the event. Does it make sense for the full force of the government to be brought to bear against the perpetrator? That doesn't mean that incidents that fail that test should be done without community repercussions.

Also, I'd like to point out that sexist opinions and actions exist throughout our culture and 1) are often reinforced by people regardless of their own gender and 2) often harm people regardless of their gender. For instance, a recent study on hiring practices showed that using a female name on an otherwise identical resume resulted in lower salary offers and a more common expectation of incompetence. Many gender role expectations that automatically place men, especially fathers, in positions of authority (patriarchy) harm people of all genders even if that harm is felt disproportionately by some groups.

In addition to allowing gradations in severity when it comes to sexism, removing the implicit response allows us to talk about works and people as the complex entities that they are. Rarely can we reduce a work or a person to one label, such as sexist. Take, for instance, two female characters that many who identify as geeks would know: Princess Leia and Eowyn. Both characters have what can be viewed as empowering moments. Leia participates in her own rescuing. Eowyn kills Lord of the Nazgul. Yet there are times when they are used to reinforce gender stereotypes such as when Leia is enslaved and when Eowyn sets aside her sword. In both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, we can also point to the lack of other female characters as being sexist. We can talk about these elements of the thing without necessarily declaring the thing as a whole sexist.

We can't move forward if we continue to enforce the "if sexist then scorched earth response" definition of the word sexism. We need to move past introductory understandings of sexism and get to that more nuanced discussion. We need more responses than "kill it with fire." There will still be times for scorched earth, but we should not think it is implied anytime someone says something is sexist.

More Like This Please: Zumanity

Recently, I spent about a week in Las Vegas for a tech conference. While I didn't get to do too many Vegas things because I was getting over a horrible cold, I took the time (and walked 2 miles) to see Zumanity, a burlesque show by Cirque du Soleil. In short, it was wonderful all around and I left the theater thinking that every game designer, heck every gamer, needs to see it.

Why do I say that? Well, for me it is one of the best examples of what healthy sexuality looks like as an art form and media. The show had a number of acts, everything from two women swimming in a water bowl to a male stripper to a delicious milk bath scene. One of the more interesting acts to me was an aerial silk act where the female performer's routine is a metaphor for female sexual pleasure. The soundtrack is of a woman gasping and moaning. We also have a homoerotic cage match where the men become jealous of each other because of their mutual interest in the woman watching their fight. It looks like it's going to break out into a fight when they realize they can all have what they want. In addition, one of the male performers had an amazing pole routine. The hosts for the evening were a 1950s inspired couple who interacted with the audience. The "wife" found a boyfriend in the audience pretty early in the evening and the husband modeled how to handle that without getting mad, something that is meta to a degree given the amount of audience participation in the show.

I know that can be a lot to absorb at once, especially if you haven't seen the show, but really what I found is that the show overall was a great example of something I had found earlier in the week. Since I often talk about female representation in games, especially the overrepresentation of sexualized women, I'm often accused of just being anti-sex. This saddens me because it suggests that the people making these accusations can't imagine a world where all types of female sexuality are equal and respected. We've become so used to the versions of sexuality churned out by our media that we believe that it is the way sexuality is.

I wanted to find a tool to help explain the difference between how sexuality is most commonly portrayed and healthy sexuality. Not long before the show, I found a framework called CERTS. It stands for Consent, Equality, Respect, Trust, and Safety. Underlying the framework is a basic belief that healthy sexuality is positive and can enrich our lives and that there are many forms it can take but they are grounded in the CERTS model. (More info can be found here)

I believe that CERTS isn't just useful for person-to-person interactions, but also for media. Zumanity itself is a great example of this.

Let's start with consent. The show is upfront about its content manner. They make it clear, in a non-judgmental way, that the content is going to be sexual in nature. The female ushers wore shirts that gave the illusion that they were naked, so if the nudity or upfront nature of the show was going to make you uncomfortable, you would know early. They told attendees that the show often used audience participation and gave instructions on how to opt out of that if you wanted to. Not only did they work hard to gain the consent of the audience, none of the skits I saw even hinted at anything other than enthusiastic consent.

Besides being consensual, the show stressed equality. Unlike my previous burlesque experience, there were men performing on stage and women weren't the only people being sensual or sexual. In addition to numerous heterosexual couplings, we had the aforementioned women in the champagne glass and a long kiss between the two cage fighters (I think the only kiss of the show). We also had people of color, two larger ladies (the Botero sisters), African dancing, an awesome male dancer with a pink mohawk, and more. There was something for many different groups.

In terms of respect, no one group's desires were seen as more important than anyone else's and everyone's sexuality was shown in a positive and embracing light. Even the fake ad for a product called Titties (baggies filled with scotch) seemed to have the message that we can have fun with the desire for bigger breasts and also with how women's bodies change as they age.

Trust is one of the required components of the show. It's a physical show with a lot of acrobatics and stage craft. Things need to be done correctly and well. But the trust wasn't just between performers. In order to have audience participation, the participants needed to be free to do things that might be seen as bad out of context. As a result, no photography or recording was allowed during the show. Ushers seemed to be pretty good at spotting it too. A couple near me came in a little late and took a picture during the pre-show. An usher promptly arrived and asked them to stop.

For a theater show like this, there wasn't much needed beyond the norm for safety. While alcohol was served, the ushers were always around. Audience members were asked to remain seated during the aerial acts.

By meeting all five parts of this model, Zumanity as a show allowed attendees to explore their sexuality in a healthy way. I think games could take a similar approach and that this model could illustrate how we can have a broader diversity of female characters without taking all sex and sexuality out of games. In fact, I think how often our conversations concentrate on the overrepresentation of sexualized female characters points to a lack of multiple elements of the model. For instance, if I pick up a product that's about exploring a basic castle and all the female characters look like they should be in a Victoria's Secret catalog, how is that equal? How could I have opted-out? Is the combination of content and lack of consent, respectful of me as a consumer? How can I trust other products?

I think if we can move towards a CERTS model, we'll get a lot closer to pleasing everyone.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen: Raiders' Camp - Part 2

Today I worked on my dungeon master's cheat sheet for Hoard of the Dragon Queen Episode 2: The Raider's Camp. I previously wrote about my reasons for creating a DM playbook, mainly that the adventure is a mix of sandbox with a required story line. Personally, I found that hard to approach and was worried about remembering details. So the playbook is a bit of a cheatsheet. While a more detailed one might give you everything you needed to know to run the adventure, this one is meant more to remind dungeon masters of important bits and/or goals for sections of the adventures. You can find the current playbook here.

First, the adventure set up itself. Player characters have two primary motivators for going to the camp. One motivation is gathering information. Governor Nighthill offers some generous rewards for collecting information about the raiders and why they raided Greenest. He also says if you can bring back some of the treasure, that's great, but it's unclear how you would actually get rewarded. The second is provided by a monk by the name of Nesim Waladra, who tempts you with his tale of woe. He was hurt during the battle and is very concerned about his master, Leosin Erlanthar. From his description of Erlanthar, we should realize that he has all the answers to Governor Nighthill's questions, thus guaranteeing us that sweet 250 gold piece apiece reward if we can bring him back alive (although who knows if there's a raise dead spell around if he doesn't survive).

Previously, I had said that the goal was to rescue Leosin Erlanther, but if you read through the adventure, he's quite capable of rescuing himself and, in fact, might fight the party on being rescued. It would be tempting to say that the goal is to then gather as much information as possible, but while each PC gets an XP reward for gathering information, as long as Erlanther lives, the party gains all the information about the raiders that is possible. Also, gaining all of the information provides the same amount of XP as rescuing Erlanther while being smart about it.

Instead, I feel like the real goal of this chapter is a meta game goal, to provide a number of opportunities for role play and exploration while providing a sense of tension at getting caught. Given that, I decided to play up the sub-factions part a bit in my DM cheat sheet, naming six factions that seem obvious from the description of the camp. Mike Shea of SlyFlourish mentions doing this a bit in a recent Behind the DM's Screen episode, but he goes even further with descriptions and names. I figured that this might help with an unclear part of the adventure too, namely, asking too many questions or being too nosy can raise suspicion in the camp (and potentially lead to an alarm). If each of the six factions can give away up to two pieces of information before feeling suspicious, that can help with pacing. And if the PCs ever do get roped into a work duty, you can use that introduce them to various groups that they might not have found a way to meet yet.

Learning that 1) not everyone agrees with everything and 2) that many have their own goals and desires is important for the rest of the adventure since it's a recurring theme. Learning how to navigate those differences can provide an interesting challenge, especially those who like to role play. In fact, several pieces of information you can gather while exploring the camp provide roleplaying hooks, such as the cult's salute and sayings. Having the threat of being caught hanging over them helps the dungeon master with pacing and determining when this part of the adventure is over.

Given that Erlanther doesn't really want to be freed, I was a little concerned about players not feeling heroic enough. I think finding a way to rescue the other 8 prisoners would help with this, so it might make sense to mention it pretty early on arrival to the camp. Also, it's interesting that the episode rewards bold play more, if you are too careful, you are more likely to arouse suspicion.

Leaving aside the purpose for this episode in the overall story arc, I think with the right group, it can provide a bit of fun story telling moments that players will enjoy. If the players enjoy that, please indulge! If your group doesn't like that, I might suggest finding a way to run it more like a big skill challenge.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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