Carving Out Space: Inviting Women to Design

So this one time, I was sitting at a game table talking about Dungeons and Dragons with a friend of mine when this dude sits down beside me. We're drinking. It's loud and we're at a pub for a Ryerson gaming night. This guy, who has been invited to this gather by my fiancee, looks at me and goes "You game?" I say yes. He grins and goes "That's hot!" He spent the rest of the night hitting on me.

Another time, I was prepping to run D&D for my then-boyfriend, his best friend, and their basement roommate, Tim. My boyfriend was excited, as he hadn't seen me GM yet and we were talking about what kind of world in D&D they wanted to play in. They had bought some expansion stuff that could make 3.0 into a steampunk setting. So I start thinking about it and do a bunch of prep work. When I sit down to talk to my boyfriend about setting a date, he says we can't play because Tim won't play. When I ask why, here's what I get: "Because girls can't GM."

The guy I'm dating, and have gone on two dates with, gets furious when I end it and starts harassing me online on every place he can find me. He says he's the victim in this situation, and that I'm bullying him when I ask that we maintain no contact after he threatens me. He starts signing up for events I'm going to. He starts showing up in the same space at me. I finally get tired of being told he's going to take legal action against me for asking that he not talk to me, and report him to the group I'm in. They remove him. He threatens legal action against the group. He sends me snide messages. I finally block him after he's been removed. He tells those he knows that we had an affair, I'm ashamed, and so I had him removed because of my guilt. Enough people believe this that they contact a male organizer in the group, who is a friend of mine, so that he can fix the situation.

I'm on a convention group page and we're talking about harassment policies and the x-card. As I watch, the women speaking about their experiences are ignored or silenced or called a few nasty things. When another man calls this out, the dude in charge of the con apologizes to one of the women (the partner of the call-out guy) and nothing more. We receive no apology from the con organizer, but we do from people in the community who are embarrassed by their community's behaviour.

I have been told my whole life I am not welcome at the game table. From gross pictures in gaming books, to sexist comments, to constantly being hit on, to being minimized, dismissed, or ignored, to being threatened with rape, to being doxxed, to being stalked, to being dog-piled on the internet, I've been told I'm not welcome. It's all happened. I count myself lucky. I count myself lucky because I haven't been raped because of gaming, or sexually assaulted, or had bad touch happen. I'm lucky because certain headliners haven't noticed me and decided I was the enemy. I'm lucky because mostly, people seem to like me. I'm lucky because I play nice. I'm lucky because I'm not the one who's had the worst things happen to them.

Should I be lucky? Absolutely not. It shouldn't be luck to be amongst the ones who haven't experienced the most extreme versions of sexism in our community. Nor should it be the common story that many women, trans, non-binary, and femme presenting people have to share. And yet, we are questioned. We are silenced. We are called liars. We are asked for proof. And when we have it, it isn't enough, or we were asking for it, or it was an accident, or it was a joke.

Some companies in our world are fighting this. Some companies are saying "if we normalize having women on staff, as designers, and we value those voices and show we're taking to steps to have more women in gaming, then maybe people will get that women are here to stay." And not all of them are, but some are.

Recently Green Ronin, via Nicole Lindroos, announced a contest to find and mentor a woman* writer for their new project, Tales of the Lost Citadel. The contest was announced recently for the 5th Edition game. And I was going to apply. Seriously. Tales of the Lost Citadel sounds really cool even though I couldn't find any copies of the book to save my soul. I read all the things in preparation. I was gonna apply!

And then I found out it was 5th Edition and made a raspberry noise and moved on. I didn't, however, spend vast amounts of time reading all the hate the announcement drew. In typical historical fashion, anything men were not invited to was attacked. Not because they do not have more power, opportunity, or are a visible minority in gaming, or because they are marginalized and are underrepresented. But because they weren't the target audience. Because a big company wanted to focus on increasing the visibility of not-them.

The company went on to clarify that they didn't mean just cis-women, and that while there is only one winner, they did want to be able to hopefully call on others who submitted who had great work but didn't win for future opportunities. Naturally, there were many critics of this approach, of the content of the announcement, and of the people involved in the announcement. Those are a lot of things to unpack and that's not why I'm talking about this. I'm talking about the very basic reality that anything that isn't geared to men in this community and in this industry means trouble.

There isn't enough in our industry that is for, or even just basically includes women, trans, or non-binary folks. Our conventions are mostly men, our games are mostly written by men, they are mostly played by men, and many of them have mostly art of men (and sometimes just exclusively men). Fortunately, this is changing. We are beginning to see more and more games be about people other than men. And we are beginning to see art about people other than men, and some of this art isn't even male-gazey. Naturally, as games change who they're for, we're going to start to see more and more people in the industry appear who want to be or who are designers who aren't cis-men either.

Some companies get it. They understand that there are very real barriers to entry for those who aren't the dominant power group, in this case referring to straight white cis-men. Our industry is saturated with these people. And there's nothing inherently wrong with these people. It's just that because there's so many of them, and because they are the default, there isn't a lot of space for other people. When the rest of us come on the scene to be designers or players or part of the community, there's a risk involved. There's a risk we're going to get hurt or harassed for being apart of a different group than the power group.

In order to make space, you have to actively do things. Some of those things are making sure you art is inclusive. Some of those things are speaking up against intolerance, speaking out against injustice, and demanding safety for everyone at community spaces (including conventions). And some of those spaces are people with social capital and economic capital using it to create spaces for people to become designers and create content.

Some companies do this by actively seeking out minority voices online and at conventions. They reach out to minority designers, try to mentor them, and try to help them create their games. They hire voices and give them chances to succeed and guidance on how to do that. Some companies are doing this by networking and reaching out to minority designers to pull them onto projects to help get their names out there and to facilitate getting them into the industry. And Green Ronin is doing this partly by hosting a contest.

Why is this a good thing? Because regardless of how you feel about contests and the inherent rejection/acceptance of a contest, it's creating a space and it's creating a conversation. It's saying, boldly, "We want a female designer for our team." And that's awesome. At its core, it's a good strong message and one that a company the size of GR has a chance to make an impact with. It says they want to change the status quo, that they understand they as a company have lengths go to before they're as diverse as they should be, and that the community is also still lacking in new minority and diverse voices.

How did the community respond to this? Well, like it always fucking does. There are fair and earnest criticisms in the community and by no means would I ever tell people shut up and be happy. Because you don't silence people. But for those who are protesting it because it excludes men, I have to wonder if they understand just how many barriers are between minorities and women and success in the gaming industry. Combined with how much harassment people who aren't white cis-men receive. I understand they do not have eyes that see or ears that hear or skin that feels what women, trans, and non-binary people see and hear and feel, but it makes me wonder if they don't have empathy to understand. Or if they simply can't imagine a world different than their own even though they role play other realities constantly.

If people want companies like GR to not host contests to find minority and women designers, then they have to be making the effort to make spaces for diverse designers instead of expecting our companies to. Which is ridiculous because companies hold the keys to success. At least, very often, male designers hold the keys to success. Multiple designers I've talked to have mentioned having cis-men run their Kickstarters or design games with them for having a "beard" in the design world. Aka, they feel like they need to have a man on their project because otherwise the project would fail.

If that isn't a barrier to entry, I honestly don't know what is. We need spaces for minority and women designers. They need to happen five years ago, and they need to be supported by the community so that people, whomever they are, feel like they have access and safety when they jump into game design. We need to make sure they land, and land well, and land safely. We need to be offering them opportunities and helping them succeed in this industry. If we don't have companies doing that, then there won't be spaces. Companies are made of industry professionals, and industry professionals are made up of GMs and gamers. People. It comes down to community and people.

Companies speaking out and changing and being diverse sends a clear message on priorities and honestly, is refreshing. Kickstarters that make an effort in diversity are noted. People talk about it. People take note. Hell, I won't usually support a Kickstarter unless I know there's diversity in the team creating the RPG. There's no excuse anymore for having big company games made up entirely of straight white dudes. There's no excuse for harassing a company for finding its own initiative for increasing minority and women designers.  You're not helping create space then, you're taking it away.

When privilege or power is being taken away and equality is beginning to become a conversation, that can often feel like oppression to those who are used to being in power. It isn't oppression. It's the removal of barriers for others. But suddenly those in power are aware that others are receiving, what they perceive to be, special treatment. And since they aren't able to see the world outside of their own experience, they don't understand that this isn't special treatment so much as it is removing a roadblock that was never in front of those in power to begin with.

Instead of harassing a company, maybe those people can take a moment and try to remember that this is necessary on the road towards making sure no one has roadblocks. That we can all just walk down a clear path, free of brambles, trolls, and fallen trees. There are absolutely other ways to do what GR is doing and there are, probably, opinions on what other ways are better. I'm not going to discuss that because I'm not talking about how impactful or how effective it is. I'm purely talking about the conversation this is allowing to happen and the space that this is carving out.

We need to support these spaces. We need to celebrate spaces are being made, and start asking companies what their inclusivity and diversity plan is. We need to ask on projects why there isn't a diverse designer team. We need to support Kickstarters by diverse designers. We need to social media the hell out of those diverse designers we know. We need to recommend those games to our friends and run them for others. We need to buy diverse games. We need to celebrate when we see it and demand better when we don't.

This isn't to say these companies and their approaches are above reproach. There are ways to have constructive conversations about how to make inclusivity more accessible without saying burn it to the ground. And yes, we need to have these conversations. With the people who they're about. The powerful can't sit around having conversations about how to make something they can't understand better. They need to talk to those people, to use the advice and thoughts and ideas given to them by those impacted.

GR isn't the only company fighting the good fight and refusing to back down when people are harassing them. Pelgrane Press, Magpie Games, and John Wick Presents all come out swinging. It's a sign that things like diversity, inclusivity, and equality are becoming more and more of the pillars of our community. There shouldn't be space for people who want to silence minorities and women, or remove chances for them to remove roadblocks on their way to becoming designers. And when we see these people putting up new roadblocks, we need to talk to them, find out why, and try to see if we can help them look at the world with different eyes, hear with different ears, and feel with different hearts. We need to show them that the problems are there.

Once they start knowing it, seeing it, and hearing it, they won't be able to go back. They'll start to see the issues everywhere, and slowly but surely, their priorities will change. That can't happen unless we have these conversations. And these conversations can't happen unless companies, designers, and gamers start stirring the pot and poking the sleeping bear. It's time for us all to wake up to a world where everyone is walking side by side, along a pathway clear of bullshit debris, and are supporting, loving, and backing each other up.

I don't want to wake up to a world where I'm harassed for calling bullshit on sexist and racist and ableist practices. I want to wake up in a world where I don't need to blog about issues. To a world where I can just do some game reviews and talk about mechanics I like and games I enjoy and shoot the shit with my designer friends without issues popping up every week where more and more people are harassing members of the community for being not part of the powerful group. Don't you want to live in that world? Where everyone feels loved and supported and welcome?

I know I do. Almost more than anything. I want it to be like that entirely and not just in our tiny gaming community. Now is the time to fight back against gross harassment. Now is the time to carve out spaces and refuse to give any territory back. We are winning this fight, slowly but surely, and each year the industry gets just a little bit better, a little bit more inclusive. Companies demanding inclusivity and opportunity for people other than straight white cis-men is a step. It's an important one. And we can't ignore what it's saying.

It's saying that the changes are happening on a big scale. 
It's saying that we're winning. 
It's saying enough is enough.
It's saying game on.