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.

How did we get our definition of core gamer?

How did we get here?

It’s something I think about a lot, especially regarding my own experiences as a gamer and with the rise of groups like GamerGate. I know I’ve told parts of my story before, but it might make sense to put them together in hopes of explaining my utter confusion at the rise of GamerGate and specifically, some their claims.

When I first started writing about D&D and gaming in general, I took the stance of the outsider. In some ways, I was. I didn’t roll dice or create a pen & paper character until I was thirty. I was working from home as part of a two-person startup and needed human interaction. The Penny Arcade and PvP Dungeons & Dragons podcasts made me laugh and helped give me to the confidence to try it out, especially since Mike, playing Jim Darkmagic (hm, that last name sounds familiar), was new too.

But I also had been D&D adjacent for most of my life. I grew up playing video games. While poor, we won out during the great gaming collapse of the 80s and had tons of games for the Intellivision and Atari systems. While my dad would play sometimes, my mom loved video games. She would play with us for hours.

Me as a young geekMe as a young geek

One of our favorite games was D&D Treasure of Tarmin. That was the game where we realized that as long as you didn’t trip on the power cord (sorry, mom!) you could "pause" by just not moving. Also, we learned that if you were click on the close door button, you didn’t always have to fight that monster waiting for you when you opened a door. But I digress.

My aunt playingMy aunt playing
My younger brother played D&D growing up. I would often hang out in the same room while he and his friends played. I’d help him find history books at the library for research (especially medieval weaponry books) and help him carry those books up the steep hill to our house. I had my reasons for not rolling dice then (I’m looking at you gender based stats), but I was a big booster for the game, something I carried throughout my life.

In college, many of my friends played, including my then boyfriend and now husband. Another of my friends recently started freelancing in tabletop roleplaying games and a bunch of us meet up at GenCon each year. It still didn’t feel like the right time for me to start (I was worried about falling down the rabbit hole...oops), but again, I hung out and listened while they played. I also found a wonderful game, Avernum by SpiderWeb Software, that gave me much of the fun of D&D without the anxiety.

After I graduated and got married, I encouraged my husband to keep playing, even helping to host his group. I figured out how to get enough table space for all of them and made sure I got back to the apartment in time so none of them would have to wait. I often cooked meals for them, taking requests, and tried to make sure there were snacks and beverages that they liked.

Even though I was playing games during this time and reading and listening to much of the same media as people who gamed and often about games, I was scared to call myself a gamer. You see, the definition of gamer is often used in an exclusionary fashion. To many, it doesn’t matter that I was addicted to games like Avernum or Civilization. They weren’t the right games or I didn’t put in enough hours over a long enough time period. Those are just "casual games" and real gamers make it a lifestyle, but it doesn’t count if you arrange your life around games that you aren’t playing. Trying to explain my complicated but rich connection to games just didn’t seem worth it especially when the reactions to a person who doesn’t fit into the dominante narrative of what a gamer is can be downright demoralizing if not scary. (For instance, just today I was asked why I don’t just create games instead of relating my experiences. While I was looking at books with my name in them.)

But how did we get to that narrative? Why aren’t my experiences, my time, and my dollars enough to be considered a gamer? Why does the narrative revolve around people who play certain types of games on certain types of platforms?

At some point gamer became a term that wasn’t about anyone who played games but about people who played games on particular gaming consoles, such as the Playstation or the Xbox. Originally they were termed "core gamers," implying that they are at the center of the gaming universe, but many have dropped the "core" when talking about them.

My dad more often counts as a gamer than I doMy dad more often counts as a gamer than I do

Why do we focus on them? Part of it is that at least historically, they were where the money was. If we look back at the 2005 ESA Essential Facts pdf, we'll see that in 2004, computer and video games combined were a $7.3 billion (with a b) business with about $6 spent on video games for every $1 spent on computer games. Looking at units sold, over 72% of video games sold were in genres that tend to be male dominated (Action 30.1%, Sports 17.8%, Shooters 9.6%, Racing 9.4%, and Fighting 5.4%).

Yet the overall statistics of gamers showed that 43% of gamers identified as female and that "women over the age of 18 represented a larger portion of the game-playing population (28%) than boys from ages 6 to 17 (21%)." (If you do the math, that means men 18+ constituted 34% of people playing games, only 6 point difference from the same age group of women.)

In the same year as this report, Douglas Lowenstein, then President of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), presented his plan for world domination by video games. Key to this plan was broadening games to break out of the male focused market it currently found itself almost exclusively associated with. He saw video games becoming an entertainment option as ubiquitous as films; an area where there was something for everyone. In his report on the state of the industry, he explicitly points to how games marketing contributes to this narrow view of games. "It's hard to argue with her complaint that our own industry, mainly through our marketing practices, reinforces the stereotype that most gamers are men."

What is he saying here? Well, he's pointing out that the industry stats don't align with the view many, including people marketing the games, have about the games market. Focusing on where the money is currently makes some sense, we know what we know. But the percentages of women who played games versus where unit sales were suggested to him that there could be an untapped market. He describes why he thinks electronic games still lag behind TV and film as a market.

A partial answer is [TV and film] have done a better job developing products that have truly mass market appeal at mass market prices. That is not to say they create better entertainment necessarily. It suggests, instead, that they are better at creating content with wider appeal. Say what you want about The Passion of the Christ but the fact remains it was the 3rd biggest money maker of all-time, generating $612 million worldwide, and $371 million in the US. Assuming $10 a ticket in the US, that's an astonishing 37 million people who saw the film. The film revealed something Hollywood was missing -that there is an audience that had been largely unseen or ignored who would swarm to cineplexes if they featured movies of particular interest to them, in this case with openly religious themes.

So, in 2005 we have not only a situation where women make up a significant and necessary part of the overall market (I don't know of many games that could deal with a loss of 10% or more of their audience), but that they have been making clear that they feel the market is wanting. We have a leader in the industry reminding members that maybe they are hyperfocusing on an already saturated market and that women, among others, could provide avenues for growth. These are all market-based arguments for changing how some games are made, for making new games we are not making today, and for changing how we market those games.

Fast forward about five years, to about 2010. In the intervening years, we see an increase in the divide between male and female gamers, largely a decrease in the percentage of female gamers under the age of 18 and an increase in male gamers 18+, but this year we have 52% of gamers identifying as male and 42% as female. Women 18+ now constitute 37% of the overall market and males 18+ are 45%. The computer and video games market has grown to $10.1 billion.

If you keep to these high level looks at the industry, it's hard to see the change that's happening. In particular, two events occur that disrupt the console gamers are the "core gamers" narrative, the addition of digital delivery and the ability to play games on new platforms, including mobile phones.

Starting in the 2011 Essential Facts report, we get data on a brand new category of sales. The category is called "other" which stands for "other delivery formats includ[ing] subscriptions, digital full games, digital add-on content, mobile apps, social network gaming, and other physical delivery." This category alone adds an additional $5.4 billion to the $10.1 billion mentioned earlier. Think about that, a good ⅓ of the sales for 2010 are in this new category. However, unlike the physical sales, less is known about that market. We don't have the breakout by genre for this group that we do for computer or video games.

Let's talk a bit more about that increase in digital delivery. In 2010, digital format was at 24%. This is important because previously, physical stores could act as gatekeepers for game sales. Not only did they get to decide whether or not a game was stocked and where it was placed, but the act of going to a video game store could cause a higher degree of friction to female and non-binary customers. I know that once I found out about Steam (and they started supporting macs), my game consumption increased dramatically. The same is true of comic books in regards to applications like Comixology. I went from a person who never bought comics to someone who regularly buys somewhere around a dozen titles or more per month.

By 2013, that "other" division is larger than the video game market, now at $9 billion versus video game sales of $6.1 billion. Digital formats are now at 53%. Oh, and the gender divide? Women are 48% compared to 52% male and women 18+ constitute 36% of the market, surpassing the male 18+ group (35%).

Gender and AgeGender and Age

Many in GamerGate like to put forward a narrative that suggests a conspiracy led by so-called Social Justice Warriors to force change from outside. I don't think this data supports it. Yes, the data supports their underlying awareness of a change in the games market. There is a larger spread in game genres now versus 2004. Gender composition has changed over the years.

However, instead of their narrative, I'd suggest the data raises the question about whether or not those who play console games can really be considered the "core" of the market anymore. I'd suggest that perhaps games media outlets have been diversifying their content (if less than half of a percent of articles using certain feminist words counts as diversifying) not because they are being forced to but because their market too is changing. That women are and have always been gamers with a significant investment in the market and now are starting to get their consumer voices heard.

That is why I have such a hard time with the narrative from GamerGate that this is about a consumer revolt, because at the end of the day, the people they are supposedly revolting against are also consumers, ones that they have tried to marginalize for over a decade. The numbers also suggest that instead of being infiltrated from outside, people within are voting with their dollars and that is causing the diversification they see. I don't think we are going to go back to where the market focuses on what was previously called the core gamer market.

Edit: My dad wanted me to update the photo because his collection has grown since then. This shows only one side of the room. :)

But Some Feminists Emasculate Men!

This weekend I had a rather depressing conversation about GamerGate. During that conversation, someone made an equivalence between feminism and GamerGate. The argument went something like this:

Person A: Get a new tag.
Person B: Find a new term for feminism.
Person C: But feminism is a field of academic study with decades of research.
Person B: But some feminists emasculate men!
Person A: What are you talking about?
Person B: ::Provides a link to a book of satire with a woman with scissors on the cover::
Person B ::Brings up the one segment on The View where they joked about a woman cutting off her husband's penis.::

While I'd love to talk about all of this, in particular, I want to talk about how messed up the claim that feminists emasculate men is.

First, let's explore definitions. The literal and archaic definition refers to castrating a man. There are also the metaphorical meanings.

make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective
deprive (a man) of his male role or identity

Think on this a bit. If a person weakens the argument of another, one can argue that the person making the argument has been emasculated. Or, if society says that male gender roles revolve around "being in charge," a woman who is not submissive is then emasculating the man. In this world view, there is no place for gender equality and actually, there's not much place for debate because challenging the idea can be seen as challenging the masculinity of the person presenting the idea.

Until we fix this worldview, one where making an idea seem weaker or less effective is a metaphorical castration, we're going to see these same toxic discussions happen again and again. Until we fix the view that men have a particular role or identity and that depriving them of that is akin to mutilating their genitalia, we cannot have equality. I cannot safely present my point of view and argue the same way men do if it's seen as an attack on their manhood. It's just not possible. It will continue to be seen as an attack rather than as a discussion.

Combine this with the frequent messages of "don't let a girl beat you!" If a woman bests someone who is male in an argument, a person who buys into this word and its worldview is likely to feel not only emasculated by the argument but also by the fact they were defeated by a woman. And rather than attacking the world view (which often feels overwhelming and impossible to change), the rage and anger will be focused at the woman. I see this again and again. It's part of the reason why women's words are received differently by men, the bit truth behind the quote from Margaret Atwood that, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

We need to call this out. We need to talk about this.

Photo by ralphbijker

The Dueling Definitions of Sexism

An image has been going around that I think helps show one of the fundamental disconnects. Someone, while talking about Anita Sarkeesian, says the following:

my biggest problem with anita, is that if I used her logic i could see sexism everywhere.

For myself and my friends, the reaction is often along the lines of "so close but so far." However, this very real disagreement on the meanings of words and the reasons for critique form is part of the so-called "culture war." I'd like to go into it further.

Let me first say, I think there's something to what they are saying, although not the way they usually mean it. It's a well known issue among academics, and Sarkeesian is one, that one's training leads to certain biases. Now, that doesn't mean one is in some sort of unbiased state before training, but rather, political science majors are more likely to want to explain the world in terms of social structures and power, economists want to explain it in terms of markets and capital, etc, etc. So, it's true that Sarkeesian's critique focuses on one fraction of the academic spectrum and that alternate lenses could be used to view the same material and conclusions. All that really means is that we shouldn't be surprised when someone who focuses on the academic framework of gender studies and especially feminism produces an argument that focuses on gender and sexism. I mean, when I listen to the Freakonomics or Planet Money podcasts, I don't rage quit because they don't use other frames for looking at the world.

Crash Course recently had a rather interesting look into these biases, this time by looking at the often taught concept of "The Rise of the West and Historical Methodology." In addition to talking about biases likely to be developed by political scientists, economists, and the like, he even deconstructs the issues with calling any location by its cardinal direction. I also enjoy that he breaks down the false division between science as facts and literature as fiction and shows that different people, even within the same discipline, can come up with different theories.

While I've been talking about separate disciplines to this point, one of the more interesting things to me is that while Sarkeesian does rely heavily on the academic work of women's and gender study research, she attempts to bring in more interdisciplinary approaches throughout her work. The research and literature that supports her points comes from a wide array of academic fields of study. She integrates psychology, especially the work on stereotype threat, she looks at history, comparative literature, film studies, and more. I often get the feeling that many people view women's and gender studies programs as existing outside of academia instead of being integrated within other lenses.

What all of this means is that while I understand the complaints about "one-sidedness" in Sarkeesian's arguments these are 1) not a bad thing, we live in a complex world that sometimes needs to be simplified, 2) are neither uncommon nor outliers, and 3) merely pointing it out isn't really a critique of her work. That last point in particular needs to be emphasized. Pointing out that people who specialize in a particular academic discipline are likely to frame the world in the terms of that discipline is not a critique of the work produced. That's why criticisms of "she's biased!" so often fall on deaf ears.

With that understanding out of the way, I'd like to delve a bit more into the meat of the disagreement. People like the one in the above referenced tweet often are working from a different definition than people like Sarkeesian are working from. It's one that generally centers on the intent of the person being accused of sexism and/or emphasizes overt acts of sexism. It tends be more literal and lacks nuance. I will admit here that this definition is what I, myself, had used for much of my life, even after taking multiple cross-disciplinary women's studies courses, so I don't lack familiarity with it.

Sarkeesian works from a different model, one that generally emphasizes subtext, power dynamics, and outcomes. It's not enough to say that women are powerful in a game; they both can be power and the game can still have elements of sexism, it's all about whether that power comes from societal stereotypes or if people can have their own agency. Sexism isn't merely gender discrimination, the use of gendered terms, and the like, it's about the power to enforce gender discrimination beyond the individual basis. It's about outcomes. For instance, explain away however you like the fact that women in the same jobs often earn less than men in those jobs, the fact that jobs that are traditionally female are paid less than jobs that are traditionally male is also an issue. This frame of the world is the one that I generally hold today.

This disagreement over the word "sexism" causes many, many problems. Because the first group believes it should only apply in overt circumstances and often that people who perpetuate such overt acts should be punished, the more nuanced use causes them to become defensive. For some men, this often manifests since "defending one's honor," a widely held masculine virtue. Not defending one's honor is seen as weakness and, by some, questions that person's masculinity. For some women, the distrust the more nuanced view generates can cause greater issues, either for them personally or for the men that they care about, and they will fight against it. Some women profit from or internalize the messages sexism in our society tells them, leading them to defend the status quo.

Much of this is further complicated by two things. First, we have an issue where men in general, are often not allowed to complain about the status quo, aren't allowed to change things. I had to go through this as a kid when I wanted to play "boy games" in elementary school. In particular, we played a game that was like everyone-for-themselves dodge ball. The boys didn't really want me to play, so they would do things like slam the ball down on my head. If I complained, they would point to it as a reason why I really shouldn't be playing. If I "took it," then I was accepted into the group. While my gender had something to do with the treatment I received, they would have done the same to any child who did not show the values, masculine values, that the rest of the group accepted. The bullying of "sensitive" boys comes from the same roots. Boys and men are often taught at a young age in our society that they cannot complain, that they must "take it like a man." This leads to those accusations that Sarkeesian, Quinn, Wu, and others are professional victims.

Second, it leads to a situation where many of the consequences of sexism in society remain beyond our reach to address. While overt sexism has consequences, I think they are dwarfed by the consequences of implicit sexism. The amount of money people earn has a tremendous effect on their lives, not only in the immediate term of what they can afford, but when it comes to retirement, bonuses, and other long-term financial planning. Whether or not people can get jobs in an industry affects what gets produced in that industry. This belief that the only real harm comes from the people who tell me what my place and role as a woman is hides the real costs of sexism. Much more harm was done to me over the past few years by the people who tried to tell me what sexism should mean or what I should write about than any of those other people have done. It did lead me to not want to write for a time and to withdraw from the community. I understand why that happened and I don't fault the people who did it, but I think it's something worth bringing up.

So why write this at all? Sure, I wanted to present my arguments for why maybe we should be at least willing to see sexism everywhere, but also because until we find a way to address this fundamental disagreement, I think our path will continue to be full of adversity and harm. I keep trying to find ways to reduce this harm, but I can't do it alone.

Group Spotlight: After School D&D

Yesterday I received a tweet from someone about the article I did on the Dynamite! Magazine image of three teens playing Dungeons & Dragons. It turns out that he runs a D&D group at school and that his students adopted that image as part of the official flyer for the group. I asked him to tell me his story via email. It's really awesome and I'm glad he agreed to let me share it with all of you.

I teach middle school science at a small private school in Seminole, Florida. I started a board games club after school and a few people came for a couple of weeks and it was fun. Then two of the girls started asking me about D&D because they knew I played with some teachers and they knew it from the Big Bang Theory. Many kids their age seem to only know the game from that show. So I said we could try it in the next session to see if they liked it. So I made some characters for them and we played the next week. At first three girls showed up. Three of the quieter girls. We had a really good time. And that was the end of board games club. The next week two more showed up and the week after that two more. So now we've leveled off at seven and it's officially Dungeons and Dragons Club. I bought each of them a set of dice to use in whatever color they wanted. They love them. It's all about the color.

One of the really quiet girls really got into the game. She told me specifically what she wanted her character to be and wrote a whole back story for her and her character's family. It was great. A few weeks in she told me her dad used to play and they started having these huge conversations about his experiences when he was her age. He dug into his old keepsakes boxes and found his old set of dice. He passed them on to her so she could use them, and now she plays with them in our games.

There are some boys that I can tell who want to get into D&D too but they can't get past the stigma of being a "geek." I work at a very sports-centric school. The girls all get along and support each other so there wasn't an issue with them. In class the other day, a "cool" boy started giving the group a hard time, saying "that game is for people with no friends." To which one of them replied in front of everyone, "No friends? There were 8 of us playing yesterday. Who did you hang out with after school that wasn't your mom." I have to admit I laughed out loud. And that was the end of that attempt at bullying.

Like I said, I started with the Dungeon Delve and moved on to my own stuff. I used to teach English, so I've been loving the writing. Two of the girls already want to learn how to DM and are developing some side quests for us.

It's been by far the most rewarding after school thing I've done. The social interaction and imagination and cooperation and confidence I've seen in the girls is really fantastic.

Anyway. Thanks for listening to my completely random story. I like what you do and will be an avid reader starting today!


This is awesome, Steven, and thanks so much for sharing!

How about the rest of you? Do you have a story like this you'd love to share? If so, send an email to mygroup at sarahdarkmagic dot com.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen: Raiders' Camp - Part 1

So, chapter 2 of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Just a reminder but I’m going to look at this in depth, so there will be spoilers aplenty. I think the easiest way to describe this section is that it’s a sandboxed area that requires a number of things to happen.

This chapter has three subsections.

  • Stragglers - Really slow and not too bright raiders that the party should be able to not only take but also get information from.
  • Rear Guard - Soldiers meant to either stop people like the PCs from attacking the camp before the raiders have had a chance to rest and regroup or at least warn the camp of an impending attack.
  • Camp life - Infiltrate the camp, find information, and save the monk, Leosin Erlanthar.

The Stragglers

I feel like the stragglers serve three purposes. First, a reminder to the players and the DM that not all of the NPCs are super bright or tactical. I mean, these characters just raided a town, are in no rush to get back to their camp, and they have a campfire that can be spotted from miles away. The second purpose is to show and/or reinforce that there can be factions even among the raiders, an important point when the PCs realize that the camp is full with a hundred or so raiders. Not only do the humans and kobolds do different things when attacked, they provide different information when questioned. Finally, they can provide information to help with the upcoming challenges, potentially allowing a party to skip a challenging fight and having their cover blown before they even reach the camp.

Rear Guard

This one has me scratching my head a bit. The text of the adventure even states it’s the smart thing to bypass this encounter. It feels like a trap encounter for a hack ‘n slash party. In some ways, that’s fine, there are upcoming challenges that will have serious consequences if the party adopts the hack ‘n slash approach, but it also makes me wonder if there are better ways of handling this. Also, it doesn’t really provide the party with a safe space to learn this lesson. If the runner successfully reaches the camp, the person who has to “pay” for the party’s decision is really the DM, I think it becomes both more difficult and less fun to run.

There’s also an issue, maybe due to editing, of conflicting information. In the rewards section, the description says that the cultists outfits and weapons could be invaluable to the PCs when they try to enter camp but the camp section says “[i]f characters are wearing Cult of the Dragon regalia taken from the rearguard, the characters have disadvantage on [a recognition] roll because no one returning to camp at this time should be in uniform.”

The Camp

Obviously, the primary quest in the camp is to free Leosin Erlanthar. Personally, I’m not sure my groups would necessarily care unless I did work upfront to weave Leosin into their backstories.

When they decide to attempt to free him depends on two things: do they want to try to collect information first and if they are recognized. These two things provide the main tension for the area. The more the PCs can learn about the cultists’ plans, the easier the rest of the adventure will go, both from them and the DM. However, with each question they ask, they risk revealing themselves as newcomers and/or running across someone who recognizes them. So, for me, I’d approach pacing by using this tension to work for me.

Now, SlyFlourish has some great suggestions on his blog for how to run this part of the adventure. I particularly agree with not being afraid to split the party here. Safety in numbers isn’t going to work when you are easily outnumbered 20 to 1 anyway and the dramatic tension that can occur when you switch to the next person right after the current PC realizes they have been recognized can be priceless. Of course, it depends on your group.

One of the difficulties I’ll stress here is that while this section fits perfectly within the hero’s journey narrative, it works against the self-concept many people have of heroes, since you can’t directly challenge the bad guys here. I can see this being frustrating for some players. Adding injustices within the camp that the players can defeat might help relieve some of that frustration if it happens. The hunters mght be an interesting place to add this in. For instance, they could steal some of the meat back for them or something. Finding ways to secretly aid the prisoners could also work or even somehow making the prisoners’ guards look bad.

Well, that’s it for now. Next time I’ll come up with a cheat sheet similar to the one I created for the first episode.

Games are about Stories or How We Got Here

One thing that sometimes gets lost in discussions about gaming is that games, at least most of the games we talk about, are about story just as much, if not more so, as they are about mechanics. The stories are how we differentiate games. Otherwise, why create another point and shoot after Duck Hunt? Why have SpyHunter and Bump ‘N Jump? Why can’t Dungeons & Dragons just be the game system to rule them all?

Once you accept that the story is as important to the game system, it becomes impossible to divorce the story from the game play. I’m trying to be a bit light here, but did we not just have a war by some against 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons because some felt it relied too heavily on disassociated mechanics, that it lacked verisimilitude? If not, please let me know because that means I have truly walked through the looking glass.

Given that the story is what makes each game unique, which helps inform and contextualize the mechanics, we cannot review a game without reviewing its story. Ok, that’s a bit of an understatement. In theory you could if your only audience consists of people whose primary care is overwhelmingly about the game’s mechanics, those for whom the story, in the end, doesn’t matter.

However, there is no proof that those people constitute the majority or even the plurality of the audience. I’d argue that for the majority of the audience, story matters. This is nothing new. I’ve heard my friends discuss the stories of games for a long time, and not just in tabletop. The fact that people will attempt to criticize Anita Sarkeesian’s videos with in story rationalizations, including from fiction not included in the game, speaks to the importance of story.

That leads me to ask, what has changed? Why, today, is a game review that adds or deducts points for story so controversial? My understanding is that it’s the internet but not in the way people normally discuss it.

People blame the internet for a wide range of things. They see the toxicity and blame the ability to remain anonymous. However, I don’t think that explains what is going on here, but first I need to explain something else.

You’ve probably heard the song that claims the internet is for porn. If not, look it up, I laugh every time I hear it. The song has a fair bit of truth behind it. A lot of the advancements we enjoy today do, at least in part, come from the developers and systems engineers who kept the porn sites up. (It’s ok to laugh!)

But it hasn’t been a one-way exchange. The internet has also influenced porn. Before the internet lowered the costs of distributing porn, one common critique was that the porn being produced often focused on a limited array of body types. This can still be claimed today with which porn is most often marketed. However, when we start to look at what is being watched, a different pattern emerges. People, it turns out, have a wide range of sexual interests and people like April Flores disprove popular perceptions that heterosexual men are interested in only particular body types.

As people started analyzing web logs and releasing data that proved the wide array of interests, people started talking about how alone they had felt in their interests for a while. The data helped show that they weren’t the exception. But something else happened. People who were well served by the status quo in porn also started pushing back. They felt that these people explaining that the dominant narrative regarding what heterosexual men desired didn’t fit them were a judgment of those for whom the status quo fit their particular interests.

Consumption data can be enlightening and show that the things we believe to be true might not actually be. I think that this is happening in gaming. For a long time, a particular group held dominance over the common narrative. Those who didn’t fit that narrative kept playing, but they were invisible to the group that claimed the label as “core” for themselves. Since so little data about people who bought and loved games was available, there was no way to challenge this position. As a result, we entered a self-reinforcing cycle that isolated certain groups more and more and allowed this fiction to be seen as fact.

I’ve seen this from the actual marketing side. Most of the companies I’ve worked for have been involved in helping others do online marketing. I saw the push from just basic demographic information such as age, gender, residence, etc, to user stories where those individual pieces are used together to create more fine-grained demographic groups. It’s no longer a world of male versus female, young versus old, but middle-aged women versus teenage boys.

With that data comes the inability to continue the pretense that there is a unified core audience in gaming that constitutes the plurality of game-related revenue for game companies. The “gamer” identity, built on years of fiction, turns out to perhaps not be true.

But identity is hard and when you’ve internalized something, when it becomes not only how you see the world but something you find integral to part of who you are, well, that’s going to cause a lot of pain. That’s honestly what I see as happening and has been happening for at least as long as I’ve been writing. It’s going to keep on happening. Some people are never going to leave that denial phase. They are going to fight this for as long as they have breath. But I’ve seen minds change, not all of them, but more often than not people start to see. It just takes time.

This is why the attacks are most strong against people who don't fit the stereotype of gamer. This is why it's being called a culture war and why SJW and other terms are a common thread in the articles in favor of GamerGate. Our existence as gamers as people who are just as important to the video game makers as they are, forces them to reexamine this fiction and see where it is false. That's why women and people of color who don't challenge their narrative are welcomed while they attempt to silence others.

As to what to do, that's difficult. I fear that only time can help this, along with an attempt to speak to the true issues. But it's really hard when my own humanity is apparently on the table for negotiation and debate. So I'll continue with what I can do and have faith that the progress I've seen already will continue into the future.

Art: "Cherry Blossom Knight" © 2014 John W. Sheldon, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license:

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