Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pinking It and Shrinking It With Stacy

If you've paid any attention to conversations about how to get the gaming scene to be more diverse, you've probably run into the following idea: The genres and subgenres that are popular in games right now are themselves patriarchal constructs and greater diversity requires abandoning grimdark aesthetics and, in some cases, violence itself because these are supposed to totes be boy things.

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.

Zak: What I wanted to talk about is the idea of a "diversity aesthetics", like, in a nutshell: 
He's saying they should 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!


Efie said...

Studies show that men care about content,and not whether it was made by men or women. Women care about who makes it and less about the content. But it also seems to be a catch-22, that they way to have more women in gaming is to have more women in gaming,It's a self feeding loop because women won't game unless they have women creators, who can't create unless women are there as consumers.

Zak Sabbath said...

You're not describing a Catch-22 at all:

"... women creators, who can't create unless women are there as consumers."

Women creators can create and are creating, regardless of who is the consumer. It's not like Scrap Princess' stuff is UNPURCHASEABLE unless you're a woman.

Grylock said...

As Zak said, not a Catch-22 at all, since, in your own words "men care about content,and not whether it was made by men or women". So, what you need in your scenario is women creators, the rest will sort itself out.

Efie said...

Let me explain better. The problem is not enough women in gaming. Women gamers need women creators. Women creators can't exist without having been gamers who there aren't enough of. Leaving aside the question of content, this means the only way to increase their numbers is having those numbers already there. If female gamers take issue with the games that already exist ready to play, how do they become gamers who can then create?

Unknown said...

#1: Please link to these studies making super big false generalizations. I'd love to see them.

#2: There are many, many women who game, and there are many women who create games. In order for your "catch 22" situation to fit into place, there would have to be NO women gaming, and that wasn't even true during 19th century wargaming. Women have ALWAYS been part of gaming, just underrepresented and often treated poorly by the men in gaming (who do things like make false generalizations about what we like and don't like).

For more information on the subject of the history of women in tabletop gaming, you should check out this article by Jon Peterson: https://medium.com/@increment/the-first-female-gamers-c784fbe3ff37#.3ganr12av

#3: "women gamers need women creators" is a lie. Women gamers WANT women creators for many reasons, only one of which has to do with content, and game company owners WANT to attract women to their products so they can sell more of them.

Also, you're basing this on a black and white view. Either a male creates something, or a woman creates something. Very few tabletop gaming products are created by a single voice, but a vast majority of gaming products are created by majorities of white males. The goal here is to create diverse products that appeal to PEOPLE, not blue products for boys and pink products for girls. "Separate but equal" has NEVER been an acceptable measure of success in any fight for diversity.

Efie said...

Here is an examplke of a studies stil looking for others(Wiseman and Burch GDC 2015) Also http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/10/female-gamers_n_7514440.html
Admittedly not best examples as they involve video gaming. But they to state that males tend to care less whether their chosen character is male or female, while females prefer only to choose female characters. I am aware that these are only tendencies and people are individuals with individual tastes. If I said "tend" instead of "need" woukd you stil have taken offense? Women tend to prefer works done by other women,as stated by yourself. Leave aside the catch 22. It was ill conceived and I apologize for that, what should be done to get more diversity of all types? I'm not trying to troll, I want a coherent explanation. Is Contessa for everyone or just women?

Zak Sabbath said...

Efie you seem desperately confused.

You have 2 unrelated points:

-One is about the kinds of _characters_ men and women choose

-One appears (?) to be about how it's impossible to have female audiences because they require (???) female creators.

The second point is insane and wrong and not supported by anything.

As for Contessa, it is very explicit: the game events are organized by women and for everyone. The game-making events are usually or often for women.

Jeremy Thorpe said...

I think there is a "grimdark" aesthetic that appeals to a wide swath of adolescent dudes and bores me and most of the ladies I know to tears. It's characterized by a very limited emotional palette. Everyone at all times must be:

1) Angry.
2) Stoic. Or
3) Grim.

The visual palette reflects this; everything is black and desaturated cyans and oranges. Zack Snyder is the name that comes to mind for me.

Fury Road is definitely not this. It's hyperkinetically, exuberantly emotional. People take care of other people. People are hopeful, vulnerable, gentle. And it's megaviolent, hooray! Ditto Hunger Games, adding in gloriously ridiculous costume design. But even movies like Machete, which use gore as the backdrop for a very simple emotional journey, permit a degree of fun and winkery that grimdark abhors. The women I know who dress as Furiosa at cons, who laughed their asses off at the intestine rapelling in Machete, see a Zack Snyder trailer and roll their eyes: "This again?"

I'm only going by my own experience here; there might be a whole population of women who dig the grimdark as I've defined it. But for the awesome ladies I am fortunate to know there is a boundary line, and it's not between violent and sanitized; it's between emotionally exuberant and emotionally stunted. They avoid "grimdark" reboots not because they're squeamish, but because watching a dude with close-cropped hair grimace manfully while clawing his way through blue-gray mud is tired.

Zak Sabbath said...

The problem is that rather than treating "limited emotional palette" and "exuberant v stunted" as the utterly subjective judgment it is (how much salt is too much salt?) this subjective judgment is treated as an ideological statement.

This allows constant goalpost-shifting like claiming "gritty reboots suck" but then liking movies that are basically both gritty and reboots so long as they pass an utterly subjective bar and one unrelated to grittiness or rebootness.

It is a rhetorical failure to complain about grimness or darkness when one actually want to complain about a lack of complexity or care or some other more specific thing.

I don't like Snyder either--but I am not stupid enough to claim that alone is ideological or puts me on the side of enlightenment.

josh said...

Hey man, i just lurk here.