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Thoughts on Being a Woman and Trying to Make Games

UPDATE (Nov 9, 2014): I’ve written a follow-up post with a bunch of helpful resources that came out of the discussion prompted by this post! Please check those out! 

I’m going to write about some of the obstacles I see as a writer and creator of games. These are in no way representative of the obstacles other people have experienced, and I acknowledge that my obstacles are unique to me, as a middle-aged, well-educated white woman from the middle class. These aren’t even obstacles that I have necessarily faced, so much as ones I can see even through my own experience’s filter.

This post is spurred by something a trollish person said a couple of weeks ago in a Google+ thread about gatekeepers and exclusion in gaming. The thread started with a thinly-veiled metaphor about exclusion in geek culture, but it expanded in the comments. Most telling about the comments was that, for the first several hours at least, they were all from men. Probably white men, but I don’t know– this is the Internet.

But back to the trollish. He remarked that it was very easy to make games, if you want to have games that reflect you or your experience, or just games that don’t limit women to virgin/whore/victim roles.

“All you have to do is have something to write in. You can make a game for less than $1000.”

This speaks of a privilege that is so invisible to the speaker, it astounds me. Anyone wondering about why this statement blows my mind should please go read Virginia Woolf’s excellent work, A Room of One’s Own, which is entirely about women not having a safe space to write. In the broader sense, it’s about anyone who lacks a space to write due to lack of privilege, but Woolf was a feminist of her time, so it’s written from the perspective of women’s issues (much like this post).

But anyway. Here are some of the obstacles to making games that I see, as a woman who is starting to make games. This is limited to tabletop games, and I use the phrase “game creator” here because “game designer” is not always what a game creator does– if you write an adventure for a pre-existing system, you aren’t really designing that game, though you are creating, and share many of the same obstacles as a designer.

Video games cost much more money and have even more obstacles, including “you will get death/rape threats just for daring to exist.” I’m not going to address those, since they don’t happen as much or as visibly in tabletop gaming. Yet.

#1: Time. It takes time to write a game. It takes more time to write and develop a good game. Do you know what I don’t have in my life? Time. Do you know what working moms and other women who aren’t as fortunate as I am have even less of? Time.

Women do more housework and especially more child care than men. While not true in my household (no kids), it is true in most other households, and if I were a mom trying to develop a game, it would be challenging to find an hour a day where I could be alone to work on anything.

Have you ever spent a large amount of time with a child who wasn’t a teenager? They are unrelentingly demanding. They need everything. The younger they are, the more determined they seem to be to get themselves killed. It’s astounding, and from my own observations, men have very little clue about how much time and attention kids demand of their moms.

Very few men are true “primary caregivers” to their children, whether by choice or by societal pressure. This is its own bundle of gender inequality problems, and should absolutely be changed. But for now, it’s the reality. A woman sits down to work on a project– any project– and she’ll have five things demanding her attention, at least one of which really can’t wait unless she wants a bigger mess to clean up later.

That’s not even addressing the women who are working multiple jobs, of course. Or juggling social responsibilities. Or who actually want to play games, not just write them.

#2: Creativity. This isn’t really an obstacle for me, and it probably isn’t for most tabletop gamers, actually. But I put it here because when a woman criticizes a game for being flawed (due to poor representation of gender, race, sexuality, disability, mental illness, or whatever), she is frequently told to “just go make your own game.”

The advice to “just make a game” isn’t as easy as it sounds, and not everyone wants to make things. In fact, the majority of people would rather consume and criticize what other people have made. As evidenced by the number of people who like to criticize women in any aspect of the game industry.

Aside: This surprised me, by the way, when I became an adult and discovered that most of the people I knew who I hadn’t met in a writer’s group were, in fact, more interested in reading than writing, more interested in playing than GMing, and more interested in watching than performing. I went to San Diego Comic Con this year and walked past thousands of people in line to see an actor from a movie about comic books, but getting into panels about writing and creating those books? Piece of cake.

The economic truth is, those of us who are creative need those who are consumers, because that’s our audience! Those are the people who are going to buy and/or play our games!

#3: Experience. I ran into an interesting thing when I was applying at a game publisher for their writers pool. I’m not an experienced game creator. I lack a lot of the nuances and “polish” that someone with 10 years in creating games might have. I bring something unique to games, sure, but because I lack that polish, it can be hard for a game publisher to take me seriously and consider what I bring to the table. After a round of revisions, I was thanked for my application, but passed over. That’s cool– I’m a veteran at rejection.

However, at GenCon, the same publisher bemoaned the lack of diversity in game development in a panel, and all I could think was “but you rejected me!”

And yet– I genuinely believe they’re trying to hire a more diverse group of creators. It’s just that the creator pool hasn’t caught up with who’s already there, and it won’t, not without someone lowering the bar to entry. The majority of female game creators I know are in the indie pool, and I have to think that’s because the entry bar is lower than for the major publishers… you know, the ones with marketing budgets?

My inexperience also leads me to trying ideas that don’t work– because I don’t know how they fail, yet, and you sometimes have to learn by failing. Bad game designs don’t generally get published by publishing companies (which is why reading self-published games on Drive Thru RPG is a great way to see some real awful design ideas, by the way).

The first set of rules for Threadbare had a mechanic that led to what’s known as a “death spiral.” It’s not a term I was even familiar with when I wrote it, and I decided to keep it in during initial playtesting. It wasn’t until I played it that I realized what was wrong with it (it leads to a not-fun hit point slog), and took it out.

That’s an example of inexperience that demonstrates why most of my first games are going to be crap. I’m not ready. And (age privilege, here) because I have been in a related profession for a long time, I know what I don’t know. I know that I am inexperienced. Thankfully, I’m old enough and experienced enough in other ways to recognize my own lack of proficiency.

Although any game designer starts out inexperienced, the fact that women have only recently felt like there is a place for them at the table is one reason why there just aren’t that many there. We’re 10 years behind and time travel, sadly, is still a one-way trip.

#4: Confidence. Hand-in-hand with experience is confidence, or lack thereof. When talking to more experienced gamers and game developers, I find myself couching my language in soft terms a lot more than I would ordinarily. I do not speak with authority. Women and minorities are prone to imposter syndrome quite a bit, and it doesn’t help that speaking authoritatively gets you branded as “abrasive.”

When it’s about something I know a lot about, like writing instructions, I am more confident and speak more firmly. But otherwise, I use the word “like” a lot in my speech (something I rather wish I could stop doing, by the way). This leads to me not being taken as seriously, even if just by myself (imposter syndrome– that’s me!)

#5: Extra People. This one’s not at all unique to women, but I include it here as one of the obstacles I’ve seen trip some women up.

Game design requires additional people, to contribute, playtest, promote, and so forth. And people can be terrible– they can take advantage of you, they can flake on you, and they can attack you for the fact of being female.

But not just that. I think about my sister, who wrote a few murder mystery scenarios for large groups, several years ago. She lives out in the middle of nowhere. She can play games online, but doesn’t (because of time), so the majority of the people she knows are the parents of her kid’s friends, or people from work, who are either prison guards or public school teachers.

If your kid makes friends with kids who have boring parents or parents who just don’t play games… well, you won’t be able to double up on your “time” obstacle.

I live in a metropolitan city of 2 million people, and I can’t find a stable group of gamers who can meet at someone’s house, not have transportation or scheduling issues, and will share the burden of running games.

Online gaming helps with that, but if you’re working on a non-RPG, you can’t just throw your prototype cards onto a virtual tabletop without spending a few hours beforehand making sure the VTT can handle your game mechanics. Maybe it’s worth the overhead, but it’s yet another obstacle to game creation.

#6: Money. Finally, let’s go back to the troll’s statement that you can make a game for under $1000.

If I make a smallish tabletop RPG (<50 pages) and want artwork for it (which, honestly, is necessary to sell the product), then I need maybe $500 for a decent illustrator to do some interior art and a cover. If I want to have it professionally edited, let’s say maybe $250 for editing. That leaves $250 in my budget for marketing, web presence, etc. Which is, frankly, not enough, but let’s assume you’re just putting it out there for now and don’t want to market it.

Sadly, even in 2014, women make less money than men. Even for the same job. Except in the adult industry, women are paid less, on average, than their male counterparts.  That means that most women do not have a spare $1K lying around for game development. That money has to come out of a budget that might have been earmarked for “dentist” or “babysitter so I can write,” or “that weird mole on my back that I hope isn’t cancer.”

Any time someone says “it’s really a labor of love,” they are speaking from a place of privilege. They are speaking from a position where they can afford the time and have extra money to spend on something for which they have no hope (not even expectation, here– hope) of making any sort of profit. And that’s great that they have that privilege– without it, the world would be boring and terrible and filled with nothing but reality TV shows and celebrity tabloids! But for those who do not have that privilege, it’s a stumbling stone in the path.

Is there hope for greater diversity in game creation?

Absolutely. Crowdfunding, self-publishing, and “release into the wild” methods of creating and distributing your games have lowered the entry bar considerably. It’s now possible to write and publish a game fairly quickly, but getting attention and sales is not as easy, of course. You have to be good at marketing. You might have to accept the loss that your first games are likely to be. Personally, coming from my place of privilege, I’ve spent this year creating games that I consider “training wheels.” And I’ve definitely slacked off in the last 6 months, as my #1 obstacle (time) became extremely scarce.

And “the establishment” is taking note, too, and changing things for the better. Paizo is looking for a developer, and is using a blind application format to ensure lack of gender bias. Ares Magazine is sponsoring a “Girls Got Game” contest to win publication and $1000 (interestingly, the amount bandied about as “you only need this much to make a game”). Evil Hat is definitely looking for diverse voices. The Fate Codex guidelines from Magpie Games specifically invites women and minorities to submit. The TimeWatch supplement that I’m contributing to has a dozen writers– 3/4 of whom are women. Teams I’m currently working with or contributing to respond to criticism about latent sexism very fluidly when their attention is called to it.

I cannot think of a single person I respect in the tabletop gaming industry whose reaction to the recent video games problem was anything but disgust for the “movement” and support for the women in our industry. The attempt by the “movement” to move into tabletop gaming ran into a brick wall when nobody was willing to bite. There are lots of ways an industry can be inclusive, and I see evidence of all of them when I look at my game developer groups and feeds. There are some dark corners of this hobby, and we’ve definitely seen some very problematic people (and artwork!) in the past.

I believe that the tabletop community that I’ve encountered is very positive and supportive of diverse voices in game creators. It’s not perfect– nothing is, and there are definitely the seeds for the hate movement among us. But it’s also not utterly awful, and there are plenty of people in this industry who are dedicated to making it a safe place to create.

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16 thoughts on “Thoughts on Being a Woman and Trying to Make Games”

  1. Onyx Path also has an open call that’s looking for minority voices, and Growling Door has about a project or two a year come up — but since it’s Matt and I, I’ll admit that we’ll poach off the Onyx Path lists if need be. 🙂

  2. I’ve been reading a lot on twitter about the need for more minority voices in our media. Frankly, I thank you for talking about this so we can get a discussion going. I am working on a response on my blog that should post on sunday. May I link back?

  3. Sure, with the understanding that if your post uses the controversial hashtag, it’s likely to result in me becoming a target. Please be aware of that possibility, as I’m sure you will be.

  4. I found your blog by following breadcrumbs from your post on John Dodd’s entry about the hashtag-I-will-not-use-here. Your response there was so thoughtful and lucid that I wanted to see if there was more and was delighted to find by reading this column that, yes, there was. You’ve gained a subscriber.

  5. This market, like most other markets, does a terrible job celebrating those who aren’t already famous. In other words, the RPG market works to reinforce structures of power that already exist. Even now, in the midst of all these discussions of sexism in gaming, it seems that men continue to get the vast majority of the attention. Some of them are saying the right thing, but still, it’d be nice if people who aren’t so much in power could also get our day in the sun.

    It’s like the player at the table who demands the spotlight all the time. Even if they’re entertaining, and even if they say nice things about all the other players, they’re still making it all about themselves. Other players deserve their time in the spotlight, too.

    I’m seriously worried that all this recent talk about egality is just another marketing gimmick — a gimmick that is being used to make a lot of oppressed folks think that the structures in place are changing to meet our needs, when in actuality they aren’t. A gimmick that will disappear as soon as sales start to flatten out. And a gimmick that is being used to commodify a very honest, very important desire to right the scales.

    Personally, I don’t think we’ll break out of this mode until folks with privilege (white, cis, het, men, etc.) stop dominating so much of the conversation, and so many of the business decisions. That is going to be very hard to achieve, but one way to do it is to deliberately celebrate those who don’t have so much privilege. I wish we could do that more.

    I think it’s also going to take a deliberate effort on the part of those with relatively large amounts of privilege to shift the spotlight to folks who are not like them. As I so often say, being an ally means knowing when to stand up and when to stand down.

    Slightly more on topic, here’s a post I made last year about resources for making games. There are a lot of cool resources out there — some completely free — that a lot of people don’t know about.

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