Now while we own and operate a lot of pinked and shrinked things here at casa D&D With Porn Stars, I have a lot to say about all the things that happen when people confuse an ethic with an aesthetic, but I figured it might be more interesting to talk to somebody who has actually taken on bringing more women into gaming as a conscious and continuous project (and had success with it, too)--namely Stacy Dellorfano of Contessa.
hire more diversely and market to YA readers. (Which: sure.) But this fits within a larger (and common) set of ideas: "adult" and grimdark aesthetics and people who are into them are associated with antidiversity, whereas "girlier" topics and aesthetics like romance and soap opera are allegedly signs of a commitment to modernity and diversity.
Like the whole "Dungeon World is FUN! Unlike scary gory LotFP" kind of thing.
I guess for you the starting point would be: do you feel like specific aesthetics are a way to bring in women to Contessa and your other projects?
Stacy: Yes and no. Yes, I think specific aesthetics are a way to bring women to pretty much any project, but no, I don't think the way it's commonly done is the way to do that. What I more often than not see in attempts to do that are male creators trying to focus group their way into understanding "what women want", which means they only end up getting the surface level of the complexity involved with being a woman, and their attempts show as being flat and 2-dimensional.
The specific aesthetics necessary is any genre, any setting, any style under the sun so long as it was created by a woman or had women working in equal or greater parts on the creative aspects of the property. That isn't to say women aren't interested in works done by men, but works done by women often act as a much more effective springboard in large part because it's so rare.
This is because of nuance. Nuance a dude asking a focus group of women what they want is never going to understand. The nuance of growing up as a girl with certain expectations laid at your feet and the terrifying prospect of embracing those expectations, rebelling against them, or pretending they don't exist. It's a shared experience most women have that men have no ability to understand.
Women bring that into the fiction they write and contribute to, which in turn makes it more accessible to women. We're speaking the same language. It doesn't matter if that language is in a romance novel or a grimdark series that doesn't have anywhere near a happy ending, like The Hunger Games. What matters is that the creative voice came from one of us.
There's plenty of evidence women like grimdark. The Hunger Games is a pretty good example of that. There's a series that's nothing but grimdark tragedy after tragedy with a great deal of violence, and it's loved by women because the hand of a female creator is obvious. Mad Max had a lot of the same qualities, even though the creative team that worked on it was a lot more mixed. Again, more grimdark and more violence, and women love it.
Zak: Do you ever see a specific property/game/plot concept and go: "This has got to end, the hobby will never grow if we keep making things like this?"
Stacy: Nope. By the time it ends up a property, game, or plot, it's passed through the hands of a whole lot of people. The end result is the victim of diversity issues, not the cause. The cause are all those people who handled it all the way to the end.
When I think that thought, it's often about how people treat one another.
Zak: But are there aesthetics or genres that (regardless of who wrote them or specific plot points or characters) you see as encouraging a wider audience? Like for example it's a fact that women used to be a bigger % of the comics readership before superheroes dominated the industry.
Stacy: No. Women like a wide range of genres and aesthetics. There are a lot of stereotypes that disagree with me, but they're stereotypes.
Zak: So is it your take that you change the people in charge and let the genre stuff sort itself out?
Stacy: Yeah, pretty close. Not just in charge, but all over the place. I think there can be diverse products in every genre just like there are women in every genre.
Zak: Again, administrative and creative personnel aside, do you see a downside in pushing creators to address genres or subgenres or themes that historically women have been more into?
Stacy: Yes. It's the wrong thing to push for, period.
Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about someone requesting something they like from a creator they like who isn't already doing that thing. Wanting to see how your favorite comic book artists handle a genre they typically don't dip their toes into is a completely different beast than brazenly stating there are certain types of material more suited towards women. I don't have any problems with the first, but the latter is insulting.
When people push genres or sub-genres as the fix-it solution for gender inequality (or any other type of inequality), they might as well be pointing out there's a 'pink' part of the toy store and a 'blue' part of the toy store, and if you want to attract women you need to make sure to have a lot of the 'pink' stuff. Girls play with Barbies, boys play with Matchbox cars. Girls get romances, boys get action films. Girls are 'crafters', boys are 'makers', and so on and so on. It's insulting and inappropriate.
We are all - men and women alike - multi-faceted people with many interests across a wide spectrum of genres and subgenres. The stereotypes that exist are all surface-level sameness, and if you cater to them you'll get surface-level quality content. Women deserve quality content that isn't just surface-level, and the only way we're going to get that is through equality and diversity at all levels of creation.
Zak: Is there anything you've found does attract women specifically to Contessa events and other things you're involved in other than going "Hey we're women running this and this is specifically for you?"
Stacy: That's really all we do. Visible female leadership is an extraordinarily powerful tool for bringing women to the table. So is creating something that's specifically for the benefit of the women participating. It's really that simple.
Zak: Is there a way a company making games can send a message that a game is "for the benefit of the women participating"? Right out on the cover or in the messaging?
Stacy: What I meant when I said "for the benefit of the women participating" means literally that we run the events we run at ConTessa so the women participating gain some sort of benefit. We treat events as if our target audience is ourselves, and ask our participants to run events they themselves would like to attend. That's about the only content guidance we really give.
I'm trying to think about how you could translate that into a book cover, and I don't know that it's possible. A great deal of the benefit we get comes from being able to meet other people like you. A book cover or text isn't a human connection, so I don't think it really translates.
Zak: So if Contessa were a game company making games, the only overt way to communicate female-friendliness would be by hoping the consumer knew it was female-run? Is that fair to say? There'd be no symbolic communication to the audience?
Stacy: I have a hard time answering this question because ConTess is in no way set up like a gaming company, and it wouldn't look anywhere near the same if it was a gaming company. It's obvious ConTessa is run by women because our work involves so much in-person and personal contact with the people we pull in to run events.
If I had a gaming company that made games, it would't be focused on getting more women into gaming. It'd be focused on getting more women into making games.
Zak: ...and let the chips fall where they may after that, I assume?
Stacy: For the most part, yeah. I'd also do snazzy things like send my game out to places like ConTessa for playtesting and demo'ing, and make sure the crew I have on the ground representing the game are good people from diverse backgrounds.
But the product itself wouldn't ever be coded for boys or for girls. I have much more respect for all genders than to simplify someone's experience down to the shallowest of stereotypes.
If you want to work with Stacy and Contessa at the 2016 Gen Con--click here!